This post originally appeared in the Shapeways blog.

Today the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in the cheerleader uniform case we have been tracking for the past few years. The decision clarifies the test used to determine how copyright applies to many 3D printed objects. While it is too early to say for sure, it likely also greatly expands the scope of copyright protection for those objects.

Why should the 3D printing community care about a case involving cheerleader uniforms again? Because the case is really about a question that comes up often in the world of 3D printed objects. Intellectual property law basically divides the world up into artistic objects that are eligible for copyright protection and functional/useful objects that are eligible for patent protection. This binary division works well when an object is clearly purely artistic (like Joaquin Baldwin’s Mobius Nautalis)…

…or clearly purely functional (like Pinhole Printed’s film spool adapter).

It does not work as well when an object combines artistic and functional elements (like — of course — Studiogijs’ Birdsnest Egg Cup).

Prior to today, there were over ten tests for how to handle these types of objects. Each of these tests tried to figure out what part of the object, if any, was eligible for copyright protection. Remember that copyright protection can last the life of the creator plus 70 years after her death. That means that the difference between an object being protected by copyright and an object not being protected by copyright has repercussions for generations.

The Decision

The decision itself sweeps away those multiple tests for how to handle mixed objects and replaces it with what will hopefully be a fairly straightforward, two-part test:

  1. Can the artistic parts of the object be perceived as a two- or three- dimensional work of art separate from the useful article?
  2. If yes, would the artistic parts qualify for copyright protection?

If part of a mixed object passes both of those tests then those parts of the object are protected by copyright. Importantly, it is only those parts of the object that are artistic that are protected.  Nothing about this test pulls the entire object into copyright protection. That means that the fact that Smart Design’s Light Switch has antlers that are eligible for copyright protection does not mean the (purely functional) switch plate is also protected.

This test comes with an interesting corollary, which might help explain why it is such a big deal. The test does not care if removing all of the artistic elements from the object allows the remaining object to keep functioning. In other words, it is not a problem if removing the artistic elements from the object would render it functionally useless.

Since we’ve been using it as an example for a while, let’s go back to Studiogijs’ Birdsnest Egg Cup to explain why this is important.

The test as established by the Court can be thought of as a copyright-first test. Looking at the cup, it asks a viewer to pull out all of the parts of the cup that could be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art. Viewed some ways, that’s basically the entire cup. The bird and the branches could all exist as an independent artistic work, even though removing them would leave you with no way to hold your egg. And that’s ok. The test does not care that there might be very little left of the functional parts of the object after you remove those artistic elements. It only cares that the artistic elements can be perceived. Each of those artistic elements are protected by copyright.

An alternative test — one not adopted by the court— could have taken a useful-first approach. Instead of starting with the artistic elements, it could have pulled out the parts of the object that are required for the object to achieve its functional goals. Again, that’s basically the entire cup. The branches, however artistically rendered, also serve the functional purpose of holding the egg. The test could then look at what was left — in this case, that’s basically the bird — and protect those with copyright. This approach would keep functional elements outside of copyright protection and greatly reduce the cup’s connection with copyright.

As you can see, the place where you start this test can have a huge impact on the outcome. Start by removing the artistic elements without concern for the underlying utility and you end up with a lot of stuff protected by copyright. Start by removing the useful parts without concern for the artistic elements and you end up with less stuff protected by copyright.

The Supreme Court decided to start with artistic elements. That makes the process for understanding what parts of mixed objects are protected by copyright a much easier one than before. It also greatly expands the number of mixed objects that are at least partially protected by copyright.

What will that mean in practice? It is hard to say. Copyright can be used as a shield by creators to prevent unauthorized copying of their work. It can also be used as a sword against them because all creation requires building on existing elements in the world. If more of those elements are protected by copyright, it may be harder to create new things without having to get permission first.

This decision came down today so we cannot be sure how it will ultimately play out. We can be sure that we will keep an eye on this and continue to provide updates here on the blog. 


Note that, unlike the rest of this post (and the blog more generally) the images in this post are not licensed under any CC license.  They are used here in compliance with the Shapeways Terms and Conditions.

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