“Printing in 3-D”, says U.S. Public Knowledge attorney Michael Weinberg, “is a disruptive technology that raises a lot of intellectual property issues”.
Public Knowledge is a Washington, DC-based advocacy group for consumers’ rights, and although 3D printing is still new technology, the lawyers have already started taking sides in preparation for the next big legal confrontation of the digital age.
Consider the case of one Thomas Valenty, an American computer graphic artist who lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Valenty, who owns a MakerBot 3D printer, made copies of figures from the tabletop game Warhammer. He then spent a week making modifications to these, eventually devising two Warhammer-styled figures of his own. He posted the files for free downloading on Thingiverse, a site that lets 3D printer enthusiasts share files.
After a time Games Workshop, the British company who make Warhammer, got wind of Valenty’s figures and brought in a team of lawyers. Said lawyers in turn sent Thingiverse a takedown notice, citing the USA’s Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Thingiverse removed the files in the belief that they were legally obligated to do so.
But were they?
It seems to be far from clear. Physical objects — we’re not talking about intellectual property like concepts or designs but hard, tangible things — are generally covered not by copyright but by patent law. Patents cover entire, assembled works and not individual components or derived objects. They also expire — all of which tends to make patent law far friendlier to the general public than copyrights. At least in the USA, where these cases are soon to arise.
It is going to make an interesting spectacle as it all unfolds.