In this three-part series, we will discuss various copyright issues that may arise from 3D printing. The first two posts in the series will address copyright issues for companies that are just beginning to utilize (or are thinking about utilizing) 3D printing. The final post in this series, however, will address a company’s reactions to other 3D printers who create potentially infringing products. In this post specifically, we will address some basic copyright pitfalls of 3D printers.
Copyright laws, of course, protect artistic works by guaranteeing their authors the right to control how those works are reproduced, distributed, modified, etc. Many types of works in the visual arts may be fodder for copyright infringement by 3D printers; sculptural works are the most likely candidates. Using a 3D printer to recreate a copyrighted work or a derivative of a copyrighted work is likely to be textbook copyright infringement. 3D printing has not created many new copyright infringement issues, but has instead allowed for such infringements to occur much more easily.
Best practices for avoiding copyright infringement through 3D printing are therefore quite similar to the longstanding ground rules for avoiding copyright infringement through any other production method. This should go without saying, but do not recreate a third party’s artistic work (unless that work was created prior to 1923 or you can verify that it is not protected by copyright). Even taking inspiration from a copyrighted work is dangerous. Remember: it is still copyright infringement even if you do not know that the work you’re recreating/modifying is protected by copyright. It is your job to make sure your “inspiration” design is not copyright protected and/or that your proposed product is dissimilar enough. We recommend contacting your Intellectual Property attorney to answer these questions.
If it is your job to supervise a designer, make sure you ask questions. Where did the proposed design come from? Was it inspired by anything? When was the inspiration work created, and by whom? These questions must be answered truthfully. Too often, employees become preoccupied with making the big sale or developing a hit product, causing important IP issues to take a back seat. It is therefore vital that your employees understand the implications of copyright infringement.
The recommendations in this post are fairly top level. Issues such as parody, satire, fair use, etc., can all arise, and require a detailed analysis by an IP attorney. In part 2 of this series, we will address some hidden copyright issues that arise when using third party designers to create your designs and the CAD files used as printing instructions by 3D printers.