Hot Off the 3D Printer: Infringing Printables Create New Challenges for Copyright Holders

Reproduction and dissemination of written works and 2D visual art like photos, drawings, and videos has become as easy as typing a few words into Google, finding your desire, and clicking “download.” The distribution can be nearly instantaneous. Copyright law has attempted to adapt to protect these works, and constructs such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) give structure to the legal framework of the Internet.

Now, imagine if reproduction and dissemination of 3D products were that simple. For instance, you find an item you like on Amazon or eBay, click “print,” and have it appear next to you almost immediately. Such capabilities have always appeared to be a technology of the distant future — imagined in The Jetsons and Star Trek. Only in a space fantasy could Captain Jean-Luc Picard turn to a replicator device and say “Tea, Earl Gray, Hot” for a steaming mug of tea to instantly appear.

Surprisingly, this technology is here today. And it’s extremely accessible. 3D printing has rapidly evolved from a technology primarily used in industrial and medical settings to something available for home and personal use. Using digital modeling software, a user can design a product as simple as a cube or as complex as a fully-functional monkey wrench, click “print,” and have the product printed in minutes. 3D printing has evolved not just in the line of personal use, but also into other fields previously unimagined. In fact, architects can now design a home for a prospective homeowner, click “print,” and have that home printed within a few hours.[1]

3D printing capabilities raise endless questions for intellectual property attorneys.  First it may be helpful to understand why intellectual property protection is necessary in the first place. Intellectual property law serves to promote and protect innovation and creativity. Creators often make a substantial investment in the creation of their work and incur a much higher cost for creating the work than a second-comer who merely makes copies would. Without intellectual property protection, others could copy a work for a much lower (or even no) cost. For example, think of the long hours an author spends writing a novel. If anyone could then print a free copy of that novel without paying for it, the author would not have a chance to recoup her investment and may not be willing to invest further time and effort into creating more works. Knowing that your laborious creative endeavor could be freely appropriated by anyone else that comes along would leave little motivation for creators to continue creating. Thus, in order to incentivize creators, the law protects their right to develop their work for commercial gain and prevent copiers from doing so. In this way, creators are rewarded for the high costs of their creativity, and are able to fully harness their creations.

Unfortunately, copyright law has not yet caught up with the advances in 3D printing, leaving little specific guidance for tackling this new frontier. For the time being, intellectual property attorneys must apply older copyright cases and statutes that imperfectly fit the 3D printing world. For example, the Supreme Court ruled in the 1984 Sony v. Betamax case that although a VCR was capable of copying movies and television shows, the VCR was also capable of “substantial non-infringing purposes,” thus allowing VCR recording capabilities to remain in the hands of the masses. This result differs greatly from the case of Napster, the infamous peer-to-peer file sharing program that was initially shut down because the intended usage was found to be primarily for infringing purposes. The 3D printer likely falls squarely between these cases — when browsing leading 3D printing communities Thingiverse and Shapeways, a user finds as many Stormtroopers[2] and Iron Thrones[3] as original designs for items like cat battlearmor.[4]

The current framework of the DMCA creates difficulties for copyright owners of 3D works trying to have infringing copies taken down. Under the DMCA, Shapeways and Thingiverse may fall under a safe harbor provision that avoids infringement liability so long as they have a takedown policy and do not actively promote the infringement. The burden of enforcing rights falls on the copyright holder, who must search each site for copyrighted works and file takedown requests for each one or go after each individual infringer who uploads infringing content to the sites. The DMCA takedown policy is similarly employed on sites like YouTube, where infringing works are frequently uploaded.

However, unlike in the world of YouTube and digital music, the content on Shapeways and Thingiverse can allow for the creation of goods that affect and reduce a creator’s ability to fully exploit the fruits of their creative work. 3D printing allows users to create content and goods in the realm of the creator’s work that can completely replace a similar work of the creator. In the digital music world, if someone were to attempt to create a song in the style of Green Day, using similar sound and composition, or even identical lyrics, it would likely not be identified as Green Day music but rather as an imitation. By contrast, 3D printers are able to exploit a specific brand for commercial gain and cut into the monetization of the creator. For example, in the vast intellectual property pool behind Disney’s Frozen, a 3D printer could create a unique toy depicting a character from the movie and market it as a Frozen toy, competing with Disney’s other goods.

Recognizing the difficulty of copyright enforcement using the DMCA takedown notice, Hasbro teamed up with Shapeways in 2014 to create a different business model. Instead of going after infringers, Hasbro and Shapeways allow users with 3D printers to use certain Hasbro copyrights for a small fee in making figurines and fan art. This unique model has allowed Hasbro, Shapeways, and Shapeways users to profit from the creation and sale of these works, while reducing or removing the need for Hasbro to pursue copyright infringers. Essentially, Hasbro has made the potential infringer a part of the production team and is able to profit from its copyrights without production costs. Until copyright law catches up with 3D printing technology, partnerships such as that between Hasbro and Shapeways may be the way of choice for copyright holders to police their copyrights in the 3D printing world.

3D printing doesn’t just pose new questions for copyright law, but also for trade secret law. 3D printing is utilized by many manufacturing companies to create prototypes and mock-ups for proofs of concept and pitches. Often, these prototypes and mockups constitute a trade secret. However, researchers at the University of California, Irvine (“UCI”), have discovered a way to recreate a 3D-printed model based on the sounds the 3D printer makes when printing. The sounds of a 3D printer nozzle can be recorded and mapped based on their directional movements to and from the recording source. UCI researchers were able to recreate the 3D model by reverse engineering the sounds made during printing, thus putting carefully guarded trade secrets at risk of being revealed.[5]

Advances in technology (such as the VCR and Napster) have brought forth the most dramatic changes in copyright law and policy. But by the time laws regulating 3D printing come to pass, it is likely that new technology will be available to work around such laws, as was the case when the fall of Napster gave rise to new methods of illegal downloads such as bittorrent.  The question is whether the technology is driving the need for new regulation, or whether new regulation drives innovations in technology in order to work around the new laws. In the meantime, companies need to remain vigilant in their enforcement and innovative in their policies by working with intellectual property experts to protect their rights. — Noah Downs & Rina Van Orden


[1] See

[2] Stormtroopers are from the Star Wars universe and part of the extensive intellectual property holdings belonging to Disney.

[3] The design of the Iron Throne, made famous by the popular television show Game of Thrones, is owned by HBO.

[4] Cat battlearmor can be found at, and has over 9,000 downloads as of this article’s publication.

[5] See