3D Printing – The Mother of Invention or the Villain of Copyright Infringement?

I’ve seen 3D printing here at RadioShack corporate offices as well as at Maker Faire New York (where it was everywhere), but I haven’t really tried it myself.

Recently, I picked up this year’s Make: Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing to learn more about this exciting world. The MAKE guide has a lot of information to help you find the right 3D printer, but one story stood out to me. Cory Doctorow writes a great article about intellectual property (IP) and deliberate misuse of products. He ties this debate to previous IP battles involving VCRs and peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing.


Now, I understand that if I create and distribute files to print a knock-off toy (say…Mr. Potato Head), I will eventually receive a cease-and-desist letter (or worse) from the trademark and patent holder. But what if I create a replacement part for an appliance, solely for my own use? Some of those replacement parts can be pretty expensive, and I’d sure save money while getting something out of my investment in a 3D printer. Have I really infringed on the appliance company’s intellectual property by printing something for personal use? What if I print the same part for a friend?

Such questions will probably come up repeatedly as 3D printing becomes less expensive and more obtainable.

Time for you to weigh in: Do you think 3D printing will challenge current IP laws? Has it already?


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  • Daniel Dobkin


    A bit about the relevant laws, silly as they are, is needed here. Copyright covers works of authorship and might perhaps cover a decorative arrangement; it does not normally protect e.g. a component part. A manufacturer might hold a patent covering part of their product, but this would be rare for generic parts: just because a design has a specific size and shape, it isn’t necessarily inventive. And trademark law is about clearly identifying a manufacturer or product; if you don’t create confusion with your part, you don’t violate a trademark (unless you actually use it in the design). So in general it is perfectly legal to make replacement parts for products. This has been done for many years for e.g. auto parts. It isn’t legal to steal original documents in order to make the replacements, but reverse engineering is always allowed. IP law is bad enough as it is without making people afraid to do things that even our laws don’t forbid.

    Note that I’m not an attorney, just involved in the field for a long time.

  • Darrin McKillip

    I am thinking about buying a 3-d printer to create items, for personal use, of parts that are no longer manufactured anymore. For instance, I am looking to create a replica of an air cleaner part that is no longer available for my tractor. I don’t see why it would hurt if it is being used ethically, which we all know is not going to happen, unfortunately…..

  • Wayne

    Why be concerned about intellectual property rights for personal uses? It seems to me that as long as you create, manufacture or develop something for personal use that this is fine. It’s like printing anything at home. If you try to use another company’s idea to sell the same kind of product then this would be an example of a possible violation of property rights.

  • Rodney Wimett

    I would think that manufacturers would be interested in publishing plans for many of these small parts and, perhaps even items such as phone cases, cookie cutters, customized toys, etc… Imagine going to the GM or Ford website and downloading plans for that door handle you broke yesterday, or getting the designs to replace the sippy cup lids your toddler teethed upon. Most manufacturers already have licensing agreements in place with other manufacturers. I for one would gladly pay a small stipend for such service.

  • Pastor Steve

    Open Sourced Reality! I think of the scientific advancements that have occurred that began as science fiction on “Star Trek”. Cell phones, Tricorder (MRI), Phasors, etc… and now say “Tea, Earl Grey Hot” (press the print button) and a “3-D” version is replicated for personal use. Apparently, intellectual property rights don’t exist in the science fictional future, and neither should digital replication rights exist in our temporal present time for “personal use”. If I “3-D print” an edible apple, is God offended if I eat it? He created the original and allows multiple versions to reproduce naturally. If I “clone” an apple, does it become defiled in the process? Jesus took a boy’s lunch and replicated the meal for 5000 hungry people. It appear’s that replication is not only encouraged, but required!.

  • Charles

    Personal use is fair game for anything, patented or not. Selling it for profit gets you into the realm of ip rights infringement.

    If companies want to make an issue about spare parts, maybe they should build more durable products or have better warranties.

  • Paul McKinney

    Pretty good discussion on this in 3D printing for Dummies that just came out. Many different ways to slice it (pardon the pun). You design it, it’s yours. You scan and make material modifications, it’s yours. Trademark (belongs to the trademark holder), can’t sell it. Not clear on personal use on that one (assuming its a replacement part for something you already own and is NLA seems to be ok). Patents span 14 or 20 years, but since the mold may be gone and therefore the part is NLA and it’s now your CAD drawing that you created, seems to me you can make the part (certainly for your own usage). None of this is a legal recommendation.

  • Gary

    If all this goes to court someday, they’ll most likely decide the public cannot legally create our own replacement parts. Doing so sure would save the consumer a lot of money, but how could the average customer create a part unless they have the associated CAD files? Those files are what is currently needed to print a 3d object, and I imagine manufacturers would not give up such information without charging a price that would make it infeasible for the customer to continue. Yes, a 3d Scanner would be a way to get around that problem, but would it be cost-effective for the typical consumer to purchase both a 3d Printer and a 3d Scanner plus supplies just to save a few bucks for a replacement part on their appliance?

  • John Zorkocy

    It was common knowledge awhile ago, that if I purchased a record album I could make one copy for my personal use keeping the original as a “Master” for more copies. I could not sell it, and had to keep the original. It seems the same would apply here. 3D copies for my personal use should not be a problem. John

  • Mark Barnett

    LAWYERS HAVE ESCALATED COPYRIGHT PROTECTION TO REDICULOUS LEVELS, FAR BEYOND PROTECTING THE INCOME OF THE COPYRIGHT HOLDER, TO EVEN INCLUDE HAND WRITING OF SONG LYRICS. People are concerned about people printing out of production parts that still have a copyright…. who is being hurt?

  • bmcgrath

    I think the right to access spare parts from multiple sources is pretty well established law and practice. You can get parts for your car from any number of venders as well as the OEM. The same thing is true of ink cartridges for your printer and batteries for your laptop and cell phone. I can’t see why it would suddenly be illegal for 3D printing.

  • Hing Louie

    I do not own a 3D printer, & I am not an expert nor a lawyer in this field. I thought I throw in my 2 cents on this interesting topic. Here is what I think. I think we need to ask what is copy right & why do we have it. The answer is money. I am not about to define copy rights & patent. We are talking about making a duplicate part or item for personal use. There isn’t a whole lot of money in it for the person/company that own/claim the rights to be concerned or worthwhile to pursuit prosecution, if it is deemed unlawful. If one is copying to distribute for profit, then that’s another story. Previous writer mentioned reverse engineering & copying component parts are not prohibited by law. So, is reverse engineering not another word for copying? If one copy all the parts & put them together, is that not copying? Is there a loop hole in the law? If it was not for money, this would not be a topic for discussion. I think the use of 3D printer is not different from the use of paper copy machines we have today.

  • Bob Hansmann

    Of course it’s infringement. Just as Youtube has destroyed creative content Copyright Protection (in particular, the Music Business), this will put a ‘nail in the coffin’ of Patent Protection.

    R&D is expensive, jobs are on the line. Like that or not, it’s that simple.

  • Bob Hansmann

    Interesting comments. Try to infringe upon Google or Microsoft Intellectual Property and watch what happens to you!

  • Marc Davidson

    Technically, if you carved the part out of wood for your own use or took the broken part and repaired it with superglue, and nobody knew about it, you would be within your rights, as the patent and copyright laws protect their owners from others using their property for a profit. Same goes with making your own part any other way. Using it for your own use is not, technically, profiting from someone else’s property. Same problem journalists wrestle with daily – when is it a quote and when is it plagiarism? Soon as you succumb to the temptation to make one for your friend, whose machine needs a part, you’ve probably stepped over that line and shouldn’t be doing it. But it’s very unlikely you’ll be called on it. As soon as you sell the part – you definitely have done what you shouldn’t.

  • Héctor Valle Peñaloza

    No tengo comentario

  • Jay Jaeger

    I think it is helpful to break down the use cases here. As others have pointed out, if the part itself is not IP (a part inside an assembly which is IP is not necessarily itself IP!), then this is a non issue. Even if the part is IP in some way: As a practical matter, no manufacturer who is thinking straight is going to sue an individual who makes their own replacement part – the publicity would be a killer. A friend making a CAD drawing who did that only occasionally would not likely face any ire, either, nor should they. If someone makes a CAD drawing of a part that is still protected, and distributes it widely, then of course that might draw some attention – and it probably should. This *might* require some small tweaks to copyright law, I suppose (I am not a lawyer nor an expert in this area). An interesting area that is less certain would be a CAD service to which one could send the broken part to have them create a CAD drawing for a customer.

  • MAL

    I can see it now. I just bought a new washing machine. I notice a sticker on it that says ” This machine is covered under patent/copyright protection. Reproducing a replacement selector knob for this machine by the owner is a violation of federal law punishable by a fine of $250,000 and or 5 years imprisonment”.

  • Nathan Hibshman

    The whole IP debate should be shot and given a burial at sea. The whole system of patent and copyright law in the US is so broken, all the 3D printers at Maker Faire couldn’t fix it. When Google spend 12 billion dollars for Motorola and then sells it 2 years later to Lenovo for 3 billion, stripped of its patent portfolio, how much more wasteful and counterproductive can you get. For those who say that a lack of strong IP laws stifles innovation I say, REALLY?? Do you think that Beethoven sat at his harpsichord thinking, “Gee I feel like writing a few more symphonies and etudes but….. if I can’t get paid every time a minstrel plays my song in the barroom of a country inn, I just don’t think I’ll make the effort.” If the heirs of William Shakespeare were still collecting royalties, Hollywood, Broadway, and the publishing industry would be destitute sharecroppers of the Shakespeare estate. The ONLY ones that really benefit from copyright laws are the mediocre talents that need to make a fast buck while their flavor of the week song is hot on Youtube and the middle men who are taking their pound of flesh promoting, merchandising, and scouting for the next flavor of the week. And if the human race survives the next 400 years, where are the inspirations for society going to come from when all the great stories have been locked up in the vaults of the copyright holders? That’s right I’m looking at you, Christopher Tolkien and Arther Conan Doyle family. How much MORE innovation would we see if people were free to experiment and tinker with ideas, machines, and processes without fear of a cease and desist letter or copyright infringement lawsuit? How much more resources would be freed up to go into actual development instead of patent protection war chests, legal departments, or the coffers of throw-away commodity makers (printer ink and shaving product makers, I’m looking at you.) The only true and defensible use of copyright laws is the identification of the actual maker of a product or work of art. So that, for example, someone can’t copy Star Wars, insert a scene of Chewbacca denying the Holocaust and re-release it, claiming to be THE George Lucas or whoever is his bought and paid for successor at Disney. Likewise if a device bears the name Apple, the consumer should be able to reasonably expect it to have come from the company in Cupertino. However if another company can produce a product essentially identical they should be free to do so as long as it is clear that it is coming from a different source. Especially if they can do it cheaper, make it better, or just employ people in a better environment and ban turtlenecks on the job site. That’s right Steve Jobs, I’m looking at you (or whoever your bought and paid for successor is at the moment.) If, for example, a company like Apple can’t produce a superior product AND sell it for a competitive price AND communicate all of that to consumers, then they deserve to lose a few customers to a capable competitor (no, Samsung, I’m not looking at you.) I dream of a world where shade tree mechanics and tinkers can once again be masters of their own domain, free to repair, modify, dare I hope, improve, and yes often times brick their devices, vehicles, or creative endeavors and if they want to make a few buck selling their discoveries to others……..’nuff said. (yes, Stan Lee, I’m looking at you.)

    • Nathan Hibshman

      Right, ignore all that. I am running on 8 hours sleep in the last 3 days. Makes me a little irrational. Apologies to all parties involved. :)

  • Benji

    How long can the IP world survive anyway? There are too many ways to circumvent it and not enough resources to protect all of the used and unused ideas under protection. I wish that there were though. because I make my living on IP. I have to keep everything secret until I protect it. I ususally only protect something that I am actually going to put into production. That works fine for me. As for printing, I think the same rules that work for software will work for 3-D printing.

  • Doug Zimmerman

    Confusion here about replacement parts and the entire item.. Anybody can make parts AND sell them without the manufacturers permission. The entire auto industry would collapse if that were the case. Just don’t build an entire “Item” and sell it as a Ford, GM, or Dodge….

    • Doug Zimmerman

      Are there any Radio-Shack stores that have a 3D printer set up as a demo, would love to see one work, and very possibly buy it.

      • Ricky Cadden

        Doug – yes! We just setup in-store demos at our concept stores, and are working to bring them to more stores around the country as soon as possible.

  • Timothy

    So, is Radio Shack stocking the rolls of plastic, servos and print heads for 3D fabricators or do we bypass our local RS store and order from a third party?

    On a similar note, I’m somewhat surprised that Radio Shack is not riding the wave of consumers and preppers buying Baofeng UV-5R radios and stocking accessories for the radios. My local store had a few measly CB radio accessories (CB is HF versus UV-5R is VHF/UHF). I’ve already given Amazon over $100 for radios and accessories that I would normally have spent at Radio Shack.