How should we attribute 3D printed objects?

How should we attribute authors of CC-licensed 3D designs once that design has been used to print a 3D physical object?

3DSystems 3D Printed Bass
3DSystems 3D Printed Bass / Maurizio Pesce / CC BY

The challenge of attribution, or “view source,” for 3D printed objects, is widespread in the 3D printing community, an active part of CC’s larger network. It is multi-layered and speaks to existing needs by both creators and users of 3D designs. Creators want to be credited for their designs because it feels good to be recognized; plus, as a creator you want to know if and how your work is being used. Users, who are often other creators, want to be able to view the source design behind a physical object so that they can use the design to reprint the object, modify the design, remix it with other designs, or make significant creative additions to the design.

Michael Weinberg from Shapeways first presented on the challenge of attribution in 3D printing at the CC Global Summit last October and wrote up this post summarizing the issue.

In CC’s view, the challenge is more than just compliance with the attribution condition of CC licenses. Actually, it is debatable whether attribution is legally required on the physical object of a CC-licensed 3D design in the first place. Notwithstanding the legal question of whether attribution is required, CC is interested in the challenge of attribution because it speaks to two of our three new strategic outcomes: discovery and collaboration. Standardizing attribution for 3D print objects and providing the information infrastructure behind it (such as a registry or database) would increase discovery of the CC-licensed designs behind the objects and increase connections and collaborations for users who wish to adapt CC-licensed designs to different contexts either on their own or in direct dialogue with the original creator.

Indicating the license on a design is simple; platforms like Thingiverse and Sketchfab have made it easy to upload and mark your 3D designs with a CC license, complete with machine-readable license metadata embedded within the webpage where you download the design file. But once someone sends that file off to a printer, the license information is gone, including the source of the creation — the author, or any way to contact her. The printed physical object doesn’t carry the license info, and though some platforms have provided workarounds, like Thingiverse’s “print thing tags,” these workarounds only make sense for some objects (eg. figurines) but not others (eg. earrings). So how do you view the source of a copyrighted 3D printed object so that you can give credit, print your own version, or iterate on the original design? How do you comply with the attribution requirement of the CC license, if it is in fact legally required?

Let’s figure out a standard way to attribute and view the source of 3D printed objects

Given the current momentum and interest in the 3D printing movement, we think it is much more likely that a standard will be adopted now — this year — rather than at a later date. We want to make sure that any norms that are set are discoverable (machine-readable), usable (user-friendly), and widely adopted (3D community-approved). We also want to make sure that the information behind each attribution is not lost, but indexed in a registry or database so that a user could potentially scan a 3D printed object and view not only its source and license info, but also its derivatives and any commercial models associated with it.

The hope is that any standard for 3D printing could also be adapted for different fields where there are physical objects linked to their digital attributions, eg. print books, but for now we want to focus on the needs of the 3D printing community.

Where do we begin?

To start, we’ve laid out the basic issues and legal questions we need to consider so that we can start researching them, below.

The TL;DR version: We will research and document the basics of 3D printing, including figuring out what types of content are actually copyrightable. We will learn more about how CC licenses are used in the 3D printing community: what and how are users licensing? how are they currently providing credit and source information? We will also explore the policy implications of encouraging attribution as a social norm even where it is not required because copyright does not apply.

Research questions in detail

Basics about how 3D printing works

  • Breakdown of the most common 3D printing process(es) from idea conception to creation of physical object, including types of digital files involved (e.g. scans and CAD files), simple explanation of technical process that occurs in 3D printer, etc.
  • How often are CC licenses applied in this domain? How often are they complied with?
  • What are common techniques for giving credit and identifying source in 3D printing? Real world rules of thumb for ShareAlike?

Role of copyright in 3D printing

  • Within the 3D printing process, which digital files and physical objects are likely eligible for copyright and why? Which ones are not?
    • What are limitations of copyrightability in each of these and how could they or have they been applied? (e.g., useful article rule, merger doctrine)
    • Outline relevant case law. (U.S. and major international cases)
  • When is copyright in each of those objects potentially implicated in the 3D printing process?
    • Even where copying or adaptation occurs, what exceptions or limitations might apply? (e.g., fair use, severability test)
    • Outline relevant case law. (U.S. and major international cases)

Policy implications to think about following initial research of copyright in 3D printing

  • Even if attribution is not legally required, would promoting a standard of attribution result in expansion of copyright (or publicly perceived expansion of copyright)?
  • If copyright is not applicable, what is, or should be, CC’s role in this space?

Michael Weinberg and Public Knowledge have already provided some great baseline research for these questions. We welcome links to other existing research. There may be academic research we don’t have access to (ironically), so any pointers would be helpful.

We want your input

At the same time that we are scoping and carrying out legal research, we will be helping to organize an initial meeting of 3D experts in law, design, and technology, including platforms that enable hosting and distribution of CC-licensed 3D designs. We’ll share our initial thinking and blueprints for prototypes from this meeting, gather community feedback, and then iterate to develop these prototypes for testing in a few platforms. The goal is not for us to develop something that is technically perfect, but for something that has community buy-in for wide and easy adoption.

We’d like to hear from you regarding any of the above. What are we missing in terms of the legal and policy questions? What are some technical solutions that platforms are already using that we should be considering? Who should be involved that we’re not already talking to? And last, but not least, what are your current practices and ideas as a user? Please contact us directly or on the cc-community list. We’re only just getting started.