3D Printing Raises Complex Questions of DRM and Copyright

The popular designer Asher Nahmias recently removed his work from a well-known online store due to accusations that Stratasys, a 3D printer manufacturer, improperly used one of his designs. The incident highlights the confusion surrounding copyright and 3D printing, which involves more than just individuals stealing designs from corporations. But as 3D printing grows, intellectual property issues surrounding it will not be addressed overnight.

The incident represents a reversal of sorts. “Often, discussions about copyright or patent infringement related to 3D printing revolve around the idea of individuals stealing designs from corporations,” reports IT World. “In this scenario, it was the reverse, highlighting just how much confusion there is around rights in 3D printing and how much work needs to be done to figure out how best to protect against improper use.”

“With all the things this technology is capable of delivering in terms of improving designs and enhancing sustainability and delivering better personalized medical treatment, there are also a lot of unintended consequences,” said Avi Reichental, president and CEO of 3D Systems. “Piracy and patent infringement and copyright infringement are going to be part and parcel of the unintended consequences powered by the same technology that can do so much good.”

Much of the legality of 3D printing is not dissimilar to that of artwork, manufacturing, and digital music, according to Michael Weinberg, an attorney and vice president at Public Knowledge. Yet there are grey areas, such as the copying of digital files and ownership of 3D printed copies.

DRM technologies can be useful in addressing 3D printing file protection, such as on 3D Systems’ online marketplace, Cubify. The service provides file protection for designers and removes unauthorized files from its site.

Educating users is key and it can begin early. Lauren Bricker, teacher at Seattle’s Lakeside School, instructs her students to think about intellectual property issues. She teaches her students about the wrongs of plagiarism and that 3D printing is no different. However, since it is new, people have yet to fully address 3D printing issues.

It is unlikely that Stratasys intentionally infringed on Nahmias’ work, and the company may not have appreciated the issues, notes Weinberg. But he believes that similar instances are not uncommon.