On Twitter, @magiclovehose asks:
Something for the “give me something to write about” list: the legal ramifications of copyright and 3D printers?
The thing about 3D printers is that they directly challenge one of the assumptions upon which copyright law is predicated.
See, right now, in most countries you can’t copyright the design of a utilitarian item. Say I am IKEA and I design a chair. That chair can’t be copyrighted: it’s utilitarian. The point of the chair is to make many more chairs just like it for common use: the idea of the chair is not copyrightable. (The building instructions, on the other hand, can be. Which is a minor reason IKEA does things the way that they do.) However. Say I am not IKEA, but instead I am a humble woodworker. And say I design a chair, but I design it as a work of art: the back of the chair is a gorgeous woodcarving of Jesus and Muhammad Ali fighting aliens. Now it’s not just a simple chair: it’s a personal expression. Therefore, it now attracts copyright.
That’s how the law works for chairs – and other utilitarian items – right now. If you mass-produce it, it’s not copyrightable; it’s utilitarian. (You may be able to patent it, of course, but that’s a different kettle of intellectual property-fish.) But when 3D printing enters the scene, that turns this entire legal scheme on its ear, because 3D printing will eventually render everything mass-producible. I carve my Jesus/Ali/Aliens chair, and then somebody else 3D scans it and suddenly you can torrent the .cad file to make my chair in a 3D printer from half a dozen places on the net.
So what happens at this point? Have I lost copyright in my chair because it’s been mass-produced and therefore my chair has become utilitarian and a piece of non-singular design? Or have the people downloading the file and reproducing my chair in iChair 2015 infringed my copyright in the chair? The answer at this point is “ask again later” because I sure as hell don’t know: thanks to technology we’re once again approaching a problem that copyright systems never anticipated coming. Will iChair’s additional features allowing the user to make sure that design features of customized chairs don’t keep the chair from being used for its traditional “sitting in it” purpose strengthen the utilitarian argument? What if iChair lets you design chairs from scratch and autocorrects you to make sure the chair is viable and won’t fall apart, which essentially means that with enough market penetration no original design will be non-duplicable even without people copying it? (This is the “sooner or later someone else will make a Jesus/Ali/Aliens chair” argument.) Does mass production therefore destroy whatever copyright exists in industrial design, or does it mean that legislatures and/or judiciaries will find new sources of copyright that do not as yet exist?
Like I said: I don’t know. But suspecting that the answer will benefit whoever stands to massively profit from the new industrial design landscape when 3D printing comes around will probably not be entirely inaccurate.