Update: If you think unlocking 3D printers (or other types of things like video game consoles, airplane black boxes) is important, please consider donating to organizations like Public Knowledge. They do the real, often behind the scenes heavy legal lifting that makes it possible to push the Copyright Office to make these types of things possible.

Today I filed the latest petition in the US Copyright Office’s review of the rules that govern unlocking 3D printing (this is part of a larger review that happens every three years concerning breaking DRM on all sorts of things).  After reading the record that informed the creation of the rules in 2015, I now believe that the evidence put forward to justify part of the rule does not actually exist.

For those of you playing along at home, at the end of October the Copyright Office renewed the existing rule that allowed people to unlock their 3D printers and use whatever consumables they want with them.  However, that rule is burdened by a significant exception that threatens to eat the rule. Today’s filing is a request that the Copyright Office drop the exception.

A charitable reading of the exception suggests that it was motivated by a fear that people might unlock their 3D printer, use third party (and sub-standard) material in their printer, create something highly regulated like an airplane part or medical implant, and then have that part fail because no one realized that it failed to meet the standards.  Unfortunately, the language that the Copyright Office chose to address this concern was so broad as to basically include every 3D printer. 

Specifically, it said it did not apply to a printer that “produces goods or materials for use in commerce the physical production of which is subject to legal or regulatory oversight.”  Needless to say, this is pretty broad.

My petition today asks the Copyright Office to drop this qualifying language for two main reasons.  First, the language itself is ridiculously broad and ends up blocking many users and uses that are unrelated to the underlying concern.

Second, and more importantly, there is not any actual evidence that the concern is real. My petition (and it is only about 7 pages long) outlines the history of the concern that unlocking 3d printing could create faulty medical devices or make airplanes fall out of the sky.  These concerns were originally raised by Stratasys and then further discussed by the Copyright Office.  However, they do not appear to have been actually documented anywhere.

In the recommendation to include the qualifying language, the Copyright Office pointed to a letter from the FDA that is represented as raising concerns about unlocked 3D printers creating harmful medical devices.  Unfortunately, if you actually read the letter (which is only 5 pages) it does not raise any of those concerns. 

As a result, the Copyright Office has severely restricted the usefulness of its exemption in order to address a concern that, as far as the record is concerned, does not exist. 

As a final point, even if unlocking 3D printers did create problems with medical devices, or airline safety, or anything else, the Copyright Office is poorly positioned to address those concerns.  Neither the proponents nor opponents of a Copyright Office rule are well positioned to argue the merits of medical device safety regulation.  Even if they were, the Copyright Office is poorly positioned to weigh their respective arguments.

Ultimately my petition asks the Copyright Office to focus on the copyright aspects of this decision.  To the extent that there is no copyright-related reason to limit the scope of the exemption, the exemption should not be limited.  If there are non-copyright-related impacts of the decision, the Copyright Office should let the other parts of the Government worry about those.

If you are convinced by this argument, you can submit comments in favor of my petition here by March 14, 2018.  If you think my argument is dumb, you can submit a comment to that effect in the same place on the same timeline.

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