Intellectual Property in the Age of 3D Scanning and 3D Printing


A few weeks ago, Sean passed a couple of links my way regarding the questions surrounding the trademarking of point cloud data. He asked for my opinion and, after emerging from the rabbit hole nearly a month later, I’m still not sure exactly what my opinion is. However, I am sure that the questions brought forth are both thought-provoking and in need of consideration by anyone that works or plays in the reality capture space.

Let’s start where Sean dropped me in to this and see where it goes…

DoctorowThe post he sent me was “Why 3D Scans Aren’t Copyrightable” by Cory Doctorow. The post is basically a summation of the work of Michael Weinberg who is the General Counsel for Shapeways which is a company/community built around 3D printing and 3D design. I must admit that my first instinct was one of suspicion: Of course the attorney for a 3D printing company thinks that 3D scans are not copyrightable, it’s in his employer’s best interest! However, after taking the time to read his other papers, I do think that he is right–you can’t copyright a scan. However, getting around the rules that make him right are so easy that I’m not sure it will matter the way we think.

Let’s go a bit deeper by defining a few terms that we will need to use

 1.Physible: a dataset that is capable of being manufactured as a physical object using a 3D printer or       DNC machine.
 2.Copyright: the exclusive legal right given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform,       film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same.
 3.Patent: a government authority or license conferring a right or title for a set period, especially the         sole right to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention.
 4.Design Patent: a form of intellectual property protection which allows an inventor to protect the           original shape or surface ornamentation of a useful manufactured article
 5.Trademark: a symbol, word, or words legally registered or established by use as representing a             company or product

Clearing up Confusion

One of the most confusing aspects of this to the layperson is the common misuse of the terms “Patent” and “Copyright.” To further clarify, here is a comparison chart based on Weinberger’s work: