One aspect of 3D printing that is still racking my mind is what it means for intellectual property and copyright law. Copyright doesn’t even feel like the right term when talking about physical objects, perhaps IP is better. Of course we already have patent law and the many problems that have come with it right now. But we’re entering a world where people are going to be able to distribute a digital file across the web and the end user will be able to print that physical object in real life. Don’t believe me?

This is the Glif, a tripod mount built for the iPhone. It was originally conceived as a Kickstarter project that received funding above and beyond what the makers ever could have imagined. It is now sold commercially through their website alongside their other creations for $20. Yet, a quick search on the Thingiverse leads me to this “Tripod Mount” that has been “inspired by the Glif”. Has a law been broken here by the person who created this model? Clearly he didn’t use source files and built his own version of it, yet the design is unmistakably the same. If I download and print this item am I breaking any laws? The license applied to the model is CC-BY-NC which says I’m allowed to use it and remix it as long as I don’t sell it. But is such a license even valid when the design of the object is clearly a derivative (practically a copy) of an original item?

To make things even more interesting The Pirate Bay, a site well known for distributing copyrighted content, has added a new category to their site called Physibles. In a blog post on their site announcing the new category, TPB proclaims:

We believe that the next step in copying will be made from digital form into physical form. It will be physical objects. Or as we decided to call them: Physibles. Data objects that are able (and feasible) to become physical. We believe that things like three dimensional printersscanners and such are just the first step. We believe that in the nearby future you will print your spare sparts for your vehicles. You will download your sneakers within 20 years.

At the moment their are only a handful of objects on that site and nothing entirely controversial. But I’ll be interested to see if we’re saying the same thing in 5 years. The Thingiverse has already grown so big and there’s a ton of creativity pouring out of that site. My hope is that we can continue to foster creativity and innovation in this space without getting caught up in so much legalese that we stifle the very spirit of maker culture that has fostered this community.


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