3D Printing: An Intellectual Property Nightmare

3D printing. What is it exactly? The media has been mentioning it more and more often but it is still a rather abstract concept to most people. The down and dirty of it goes something like this, a three dimensional object is created beginning with a digital model and is then formed into a tangible object using the process of additive manufacturing which is basically the successive laying of material. While these machines have been around since the 80’s, with today’s technology and the printer’s growing popularity, prices are dropping and the equipment is getting better.

As these printers improve the ability to create also improves. This technology can be used to make jewelry, firearms, and a great number of things in between. As one might imagine, in the right hands, this opens the door to widespread abuse of intellectual property rights. In fact these questions are already beginning to pop up, most recently with the characters of the video game Final Fantasy VII (released in 1998).

The dispute is with the online company Shapeways. It is among one of the online 3D printing marketplaces where customers can make and share their 3D printing designs and can actually have the designs made into items which they can purchase. A quick look at the featured creations on the Shapeways homepage show items for sale from $4 to $208 which include an iPhone 5 case, bracelets, and shark week memorabilia.

The trouble began when one of Shapeways’ users created 3D printed character figures from Final Fantasy and was selling them to fans of the game. While the figures had been available for awhile, they grew exponentially in popularity after they were featured on Reddit (a self-described ‘social news and entertainment website’) and then on various blogs geared to techies and gamers. Just this week the developer of the Final Fantasy game, Square Enix, became privy to the online sales and quickly sent a takedown notice to Shapeways citing copyright violations. After receiving the notice, Shapeways immediately complied and removed the items from its users profile in much the same way YouTube reacts, taking down videos that have violated copyrights.

As these 3D printers become increasingly accessible to the public through online stores and in consumer’s homes, the issues with copyright infringement stand to increase as well. While Shapeways was quick to respond and rectify the situation and the user who started the whole mess felt no other repercussions other than his items being removed from the site, other future violators may face harsher punishments.

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