How Does Copyright Protect an Additive Manufacturing Design, File?
With Michael Weinberg on Copyright & 3D Printing (2023 Edition)
A recent conversation about the 3MF file format and the ability to include author and license data including copyright information got me questioning what is the value of even including copyright information in an AM file?
If your file represents an artistic sculpture it makes sense that you would want to document authorship, as copyright of artistic objects is assigned automatically on creation you do not need to register for copyright, but documenting within the file informs others (if they read it) of authorship and may help you litigate in court.
If you want to let others produce, modify or mash-up (do the kids still use that term?) your digital art you can assign a Creative Commons license to define the terms of your sharing that others should abide by.
But functional objects and mechanisms are not protected by copyright so require the registration and issuing of a patent for a given territory, so documenting authorship and license on the file that represents it is worthless and will not hold up in court, right?
Welp, it seems as though there may be a reverse loophole in how copyright is assigned to digital files that makes things a little more complicated.
In an attempt to clarify things I spoke with Michael Weinberg who is Executive Director at NYU Law - Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy who kindly took the time to patiently answer my questions around copyright and 3D Printing.
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Copyright is not intended to protect functional objects, yet copyright CAN be asserted over a digital file (such as a 3MF or STEP) that describes the object, why is this so?
The file itself is not an object.
A 3MF file representing a screw is not the screw itself.
Similarly, any copyright that protects a file that represents the screw does not protect the screw itself. Your copyright in the file allows you to control who can make copies of your file. It does not allow you to control who makes copies of the screw depicted in the file. It also does not allow you to control who makes their own file depicting that screw.
If I create a map of Manhattan, I have a copyright in the map. My copyright in the map does not give me ownership over Manhattan itself. While I can prevent others from copying my map, I can’t prevent others from making their own map of Manhattan.
It is also important to recognize that not all digital files will be protected by copyright. For example, a digital file that was produced by scanning a physical object is not eligible for copyright protection, at least in the US. There are likely other situations where the digital file that represents a physical object does not get any protection at all.
Since my digital representation of the object is protected by copyright, does that then cover any derivative expression (3D print for example) of that object?
No. The copyright in the file is limited to the file itself. That allows you to control how people make copies of the file. That copyright does not give you the ability to control the object depicted in the file as separate from the file itself.
You might have a separate copyright in the object depicted in the file, especially if the object incorporates creative (that is, not purely functional) elements. That copyright could allow you to control any copies (physical or digital) of the object itself.
So if I have a 3MF of a functional design hosted on 3Dfiles.org with a non-commercial license assigned to it, and someone downloads that file, loads it into their ‘slicing’ software, 3D prints the object then sells it on Etsy, are they violating my copyright in any way?
Downloading the file and loading it into your slicing software involves making copies of the file. That would require permission from the owner of the file, even if the object embodied in that file is not protected by copyright. If you are making those copies as part of a commercial purpose you are likely violating the creator’s non-commercial license.
Is any action required to assert copyright over the file and/or objects produced with it?
Anything that is eligible for copyright protection automatically receives it when it comes into being. There are benefits of registering your copyright, especially when it comes to litigation, but registration is not required for copyright protection.
Can the user of a configurator (say an online bracket tool) who downloads the digital file assert copyright over that file, and objects made from it?
If you are using an online tool to help you develop parts, it is worth taking a look at the tool’s terms of service.
In most cases, that agreement will lay out who owns what coming out of the tool. Those tend to give ownership to the user of the tool, although not always.
The rules in the terms of service may not ultimately control in every case, but it is a great place to start.
Similarly(ish), If a user of a ‘generative design’ software defined a common problem, say the same requirements as the ‘bracket configurator’ and downloaded the outcome, would they automatically own the copyright?
There is a similar answer here. The terms of service for that software will describe the default rules for who controls the software’s output. While it might be possible to challenge those rules, things will probably be easier if you use tools with terms that make sense in the first place.
So this new company claims to have ‘AI Driven Design’ to solve complex engineering problems, if a user ‘prompts’ for a solution does the user then own the copyright to that digital file?
Ownership over AI assisted design is something that is being actively debated.
In many cases, the terms of service of the tools themselves clarify that users own the output. I tend to think that is the right approach.
I own the copyright to a report I write in Microsoft Word, even though I rely on Word to do a lot of work in order to get it on the page. I also own the copyright in photos I edit in Photoshop, even though I rely on Photoshop to do a lot of work to implement my changes.
At this point it is not obvious to me that AI tools fundamentally alter that analysis. But we are in the early days of this generation of these tools, so that may change. Or courts may disagree with me.
Finally, (for now) what if I find a file online that has no copyright information on it (like the GE STEP file), am I infringing any laws if I manufacture and sell that part?
Setting aside all of the non-copyright-related concerns that might give you pause about manufacturing a file you find online, the safest approach would be to assume you need a license in order to use the file to manufacture the part. That is not necessarily the right answer in every situation, but it is probably the best rule of thumb to start with.
P.S. I guess I need a lawyer if someone infringes my copyright and I want damages, right?
You certainly shouldn’t rely on any of my answers here as legal advice.
If you think someone is infringing on your copyright, it is worth talking to a lawyer to work through your options. That does not necessarily mean you will end up in a lawsuit. People underestimate the power of an email to resolve problems. But it is incredibly helpful to have your ducks in a row before sending that email.
Thanks again to Michael for his time, if you would like to disagree with him on twitter please feel free, if you would like to discuss further reach out, I am always interested in discussing and learning more.
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