Maker Movement Mania

Navigating Intellectual Property Law for Inventors in 3D Printing

PSFK Labs iQ Content Partner
3D printing

An emerging set of platforms and services are making it easier for inventors to navigate the complex landscape of copyright and bring their ideas to market.

Between 2003 and 2008, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed, threatened or settled more than 30,000 cases against individuals who used peer-to-peer (P2P) networks to share music. It was an unprecedented legal campaign designed to protect copyrights and intimidate into submission anyone who might be tempted to upload or download material without giving the industry its due.

And while music lovers and open-Internet advocates screamed, the RIAA argued that it was the only way to ensure that individual artists and their recording labels could survive. Since then, as society has become increasingly digitized, the balance of democratization and rights protection has become harder and harder to strike.

To see this struggle in action, look no further than the exploding industry around 3D printing and design marketplaces like Shapeways and Sculpteo. Catherine Jewell of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) wrote last year, “Ensuring that incentives and rewards are in place for those who invest in new ideas without stifling innovation and openness in the use of online designs will be a key challenge for IP policymakers going forward. Mechanisms that facilitate the licensing and legitimate sharing of design files will play a major role in meeting this challenge.”

The urgency of finding the right mechanisms is underscored by the fact that companies spent $13 billion last year dealing with assertions of copyright infringement. Fortunately for makers on both sides of the issue, there are a number of innovations emerging that will allow innovators to fully focus on their craft without having to worry about losing ownership of their work or infringing on the intellectual property of others.

We’ve called this raft of new tools ‘Gated IP’ and this week, we take a closer look at three examples of the trend.

Authentise recently launched 3D Design Stream, an API for 3D marketplaces that eschews download and instead streams designs directly to buyers’ printers for a single use. This resembles Netflix’ answer to digital piracy of films and presents a solution to the stumbling block faced by many 3D platforms — recruitment of new designers who fear loss of their intellectual property.

Authentise is currently working with the likes of CGTrader, Makershop, Pinshape and, most notably, has been incorporated into 3D-design marketplace 3DLT, which took a lot of flak in its early days for selling unauthorized designs.

Via a downloadable widget, the Authentise API streams standard template library (STL) files straight to print instead of downloading the file onto your computer. This ensures that purchases on a platform like 3DLT result in precisely as many reproductions as the price warrants: one. It also offers Makers the assurance that their design won’t be modified, resold or uploaded to a file-sharing site and distributed willy-nilly.

ToyFabb, a new marketplace specifically for 3D-printable toys, has taken a similar path, building into the system a streaming mechanism that ensures one-time printing of designers’ creations. Despite the fact that most 3D designs being sold or traded online are for playful or frivolous objects, ToyFabb is the first platform dedicated solely to toys. It cites an ambitious mission to disrupt the toy industry and reduce the carbon footprint of play by putting the power to create directly in the hands of kids everywhere.

To increase the appeal of ToyFabb to toy designers, founders Jochen Hanselmann and Alex Schmid let creatives decide in advance whether buyers will be able to download the STL file to their computers or simply stream the code directly to their printers for a single use. Consumers who don’t have access to their own 3D printers can also get toys printed via third party services like Shapeways.

The struggle to balance collaborative sharing with creative protection extends far beyond 3D printing. APIs — the technology that underlies most cross-platform communication and extends the functionality of many websites — face a similar conundrum. API Commons, a new non-profit website launched by Steven Willmott and Kin Lane, hopes to resolve some of the issue and empower developers to be truly creative. The founders focused on the fact that API’s are typically built on the framework of other API’s with extensive customization layered on top.

API Commons will extend Creative Commons license to all API’s on the platform, ensuring that designers can operate outside of the ‘gray zone’ of copyright infringement and open the door to a more open-source approach to building new API’s. Additionally, API’s at API Commons will be available on GitHub for easier collaboration and reproduction while enabling developers to set definitions that others can use. This means that organizations will be able to plug in API’s with confidence that they’ll work “right out of the box.”

Embedded in the Maker movement is a culture of sharing and collaboration, but finding ways to honor creative ownership of ideas without stifling this dynamic has proven challenging. Within the world of digital design, it can be hard to define where ownership begins and ends.

A recent trend within the community reveals a two-pronged attack on the problem. The first focuses on mechanisms that let creators strictly control distribution of their designs. The second carves out safe spaces for some ideas to be shared, modified and distributed widely. Both embrace the heart of maker-ness and give DIYers the confidence to innovate wildly without fearing a lawsuit.


The “Maker’s Manual” spotlights the do-it-yourself Maker Movement and how new computing technologies are helping democratize the creation of things once limited to craftsmen and professionals. This 10-week series from PSFK and iQ by Intel will explore trends and feature interviews with artists, inventors and entrepreneurs who are turning their ideas and dreams into reality.


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