The guys over at PublicKnoweldge.org have just released a new white paper covering current legal intellectual properties issues and discussing how they relate to developments in 3D printing and DIY tech:1
Today, we at Public Knowledge launched a whitepaper about how copyright, patent, and trademark apply to 3D printing, and how incumbents might use those laws to stop it from going mainstream. While I urge everyone to check it out, I also know that there is a bit of confusion about how copyright, patent, and trademark apply to the things coming out of 3D printers. Hopefully, this post will give you some general rules of thumb about how to think about copyright, patent, and trademark. Before I begin, the lawyer in me needs to say that this is deliberately simplified, and should not be readas specific legal advice.
For the last ten years or so, copyright has been the intellectual property issue online. There are at least two reasons for this. First, copyright attaches to all original, creative works. Second, copyright attaches to a work automatically.
It just so happens that networked computers are really good at copying and distributing the types of works (music, movies, books, photographs, ….) that are protected by copyright. Since just about everything that is written down (or recorded, or filmed, or photographed) is protected by copyright, and when computers transfer information they make copies of that information, rights in these works are implicated when computers exchange information. So, copyright has always been kind of a big deal online.
However, copyright applies less frequently in the world of physical objects, and as a result in the world of 3D printing. With the noteworthy exception of purely decorative objects, copyright does not really attach to “things.” That means that most of the things on thingiverse, the whistles and the gears and the bricks and the ball bearings, are not protected by copyright.
While the things are not protected by copyright, they might be able to get patent protection. Patents protect “useful articles,” a category that includes things like whistles and gears and bricks and ball bearings. Unlike copyright, however, patents only protect things that are actually novel in the world. Also, and this might be the most important part, patents are not automatic. In order to get a patent, you need to apply to the Patent and Trademark Office, and then actually have your patent approved.
As a result, far fewer things are going to be protected by patent than by copyright. Just about every recording online is protected by copyright automatically. Only a small percentage of the objects in the world are protected by patent.
Trademark was originally intended to be a form of consumer protection and protection of goodwill earned by a business. A trademark on a product meant that there was a company standing behind the product. It was important to protect the integrity of the mark so that consumers did not buy a product thinking that it came from one company, only to find out that it came from another.
This means that trademark primarily is about logos, and much less about product design. Although there is “trade dress” protection for particularly memorable product designs (think the curved Coke bottle), in general trademark focuses on logos and brand names. The specificity of 3D printing makes this easy to work around. As long as you leave logos off of your objects, you can generally avoid trademark trouble.
Obviously, this is a very brief tour through IP law, and there are plenty of caveats that I skimmed over. As I mentioned before, there is more detail in our report.
Perhaps more importantly, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that IP law is a kind of law, and laws can change. Just as the DMCA expanded the scope of copyright law, once incumbent industries wake up to the disruptive force of 3D printing they may try to pass a DMCA-style law aimed to curb its growth.
The makers who helped build the Internet were not really ready when entrenched industries started to push back against them. One of the things that my organization, Public Knowledge, is trying to do is to make sure that the makers who help build 3D printing are ready to prevent industries who feel challenged by 3D printing from stopping it.
Definitely check out their white paper for a friendly and readable opinion on intellectual property!
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