Your Rights and Responsibilities
Advice to help you be a safe and responsible 3D printer user
This page provides pointers about legal issues related to 3D printing, but it’s worth remembering that the law, 3D printing technology, and sites on the Internet are constantly changing. In any case, everything is far from 100% clear for consumers to stay within the law, and protect their rights.
3D Printing, the Law, & You FAQ
Giving advice about 3D printing and the law is tough, and it’s tough for at least three reasons to do with where and how you get your designs, how intellectual property law tries to interpret 3D designs, and finally, that these considerations change – with law usually playing catch up – even if it tries to be written in a technology neutral way. Finally, websites you use are governed by their own terms of service, which might have different rules, and force you to waive your rights when you use them.
With all this in mind, we’ve tried to answer a number of concerns people express about 3D printing.
Can you detail those three reasons?
The first is that because most 3D printing you do will use a website to search, find, share, and help print your objects. Laws that apply to those sites may not be of your home country, and the site you use will set up its own unique private regulations through terms of service that might be different than your country’s law. As an example, most IPR concerns online are currently regulated through ‘take down’ notices that comply with America’s Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), so often this is what consumers – Australian or otherwise – experience, despite local laws. So, in some instances, Australian Consumer Law will help (buying products where the entity does business in Australia). In other instances, it won’t (see liability below).
The second is that much of the legal concerns about 3D printing affecting intellectual property – not just copyright, but trade dress/design/trademarks and patents – are untested in court. It is very expensive and takes a very long time to test issues like this in court.
The third is that everything changes. Laws, technologies, and online services are constantly shifting to meet consumer demands – and it’s the law that is last to catch up. For example, in the UK, they are still debating whether it is illegal to import a CD you own onto your own computer – CDs have been around for 35 years!
Let's talk Liability - and how to not get hurt
Liability and 3D printing will be tough to figure out. Here’s our guide to how consumers should approach safety and liability. We explain why below.
Safety and Liability:
–Risk is worn by the user of 3D printed goods in ways consumers might not be used to.
-It will be very hard to sue for damages if a 3D printed object is defective due to design, especially if it was not paid for.
-Terms and conditions of websites often make users wave their rights concerning safety and liability, and enforcing (Australian) legislation will probably be difficult.
On the one hand, Australia has very strong customer rights, through Australian Consumer Law, which are often channeled through the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
On the other hand, the nature of 3D printing sites (they might be classed as intermediaries not publishers of the good), the fact that most 3D print designs that are downloaded are not paid for, and the fact that terms of service could make you waive your rights, means the law in this matter might not always be very helpful.
For instance, an Australian Judge recently ruled that ‘goods’ include computer software, and that where a foreign company is ‘making representations to Australian consumers‘ of its goods, it can be held liable for consumer guarantees. This was a big deal for Internet commerce in Australia.
However, 3D printing websites and the users who upload objects often offer an explicit warning that their designs, in the language of consumer protection law, are not, ‘fit for any purpose that the consumer made known to the business … [or] for which the business said it would be fit for’. Most makers and sites are quite explicit about using designs you find at your own risk.
Every single 3D printing organisation that we’ve looked into has had something in its Terms of Service document that pushes liability onto consumers. We’ve even found some earlier standards that insert this liability issue right into the 3D printer file format (ISO/ASTM 52915:2013(E) – 1.3 for the curious). While documents such as these are never total and absolute avoidance of responsibility by businesses and organisations, they do make liability claims somewhat more difficult.
Finally, these laws are to do with businesses selling goods. If you don’t buy the product – but find it or share it for other reasons – these consumer laws will probably not apply.
So, when it comes to 3D printing designs you download, we’d recommend you assume you’re on your own – the culture that surrounds 3D printing views this as pretty common. Interestingly, the people we talked to in Australia who were interested in downloading objects seemed to agree. Proceed at your own risk is probably a pretty good rule of thumb for now.
Do remember though, any printers you buy in Australia are definitely covered under Australian Consumer Law.
What are my own rights to my 3D object/design? Do I own them?
If it’s creative work, Yes. Under Copyright. Any creative work (like a sculpture or a song you jotted down on paper, or recorded) is automatically granted copyright without you needing to fill out any applications or forms. How that applies to 3D designs is complex and sometimes contradictory according to the experts. You have copyright over the file you share, but not the idea in the file. Someone could re-make your idea, and if then courts would have to decide if that new file used a ‘substantial part’ of your design before it infringed on your copyright. Sorry for not really giving an answer here, but see the next FAQ.
If it’s a useful invention, Yes, but patent it. This requires filling out patent forms (and hiring a lawyer to do so). If you use someone else’s invention, even without knowing it, you are infringing on their rights.
If it’s a design that is neither a creative work nor a useful invention, but is a signal to, or shape of a brand that is unique to its trade, get a lawyer before you put it online. Or, assign it a trademark.
Let's talk Copyright - and how to not get in trouble
The biggest concerns for consumers will be how different types of intellectual property rights (IPR) are interpreted by the courts. This includes copyright (of creative works), patents (of useful inventions), and design / trademarks (meaning how things that aren’t creative art, but aren’t useful, look). We’ve drafted some guidelines to keep in your mind as you 3D print. Please remember that these are based on general use cases and interpretations of how laws do, and will apply to thorny questions of 3D printing in practice – they are not legal advice. Here’s what to keep in mind.
-Copyright is for creative and artistic works, not ideas or functional objects.
-Terms of Service on 3D printing sites matter, and might restrict the protections of your own country’s IPR.
-The legal difference between printed objects and their design files are subtle, and each holds their own restrictions.
-The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is often invoked for digital copyright disputes and this happens outside the courts, which makes for efficient, but possibly unfair, outcomes that can remove content from sites.
-If an artistic work is 3D printed ‘industrially’, Australian copyright protections may no longer apply – the design should be registered.
-Design and Trademarks concern IP that is separate from artistic and inventive function but speak, respectively, to what makes a product look the way it does and to its origin.
-Using others’ trademarks as your own and others’ design to make profits is infringement.
-Users can make objects that have trademarked shapes, or are based on un/registered designs if they don’t sell those objects, but third parties like 3D printing sites might not be able to legally host these designs.
-Patents pertain to useful inventive things or processes that have functional uses.
–Patents need to be registered before users make their inventions public.
–Infringement at home might happen without user knowledge, but there is no way or want to regulate this.
Some people and corporations will want to more tightly control these capabilities for users’ home use. Other people and organisations will want users to share and modify most of what they find, design and make in more open ways than we outline above. Note that these guides are targeted towards Australians, but draw on laws outside Australian jurisdictions; these currently might matter more for the consumer experience as 3D printing sites involve their own terms and conditions. Regardless, coming to any decision about IPR and then enforcing that decision is going to be very challenging for all parties. Unless you’re quite wealthy and quite patient you probably don’t have the time or money to battle out your specific case in court to find out who is ‘right’ in the view of the law.
OK, How does copyright really work for 3D printing?
It depends, but you probably don’t need to worry about running afoul with copyright if you find, share or print designs online – especially if you’re not selling the results:
1) If you use a large online 3D printing site to share designs, its terms and conditions govern your experience, including what you can upload and download. These terms and conditions probably interpret something called the Digital Millennium Copyright Acts or “DMCA” – which is an American implementation of international copyright agreements.
2) If someone thinks that an object you post online breaches their copyright, they can send a request to the 3D printing site to take down the object design immediately – before the breach of copyright has been proven – or even assessed. This protects the 3D printing site from liability. It also protects you by allowing the 3D printing site to not be forced to give your information to the person asking for the ‘take down’.
3) There’s not much you can do (other than finding a new site) if your design gets taken down off the 3D printing website and you think that the file did not breach copyright and should have stayed up. Companies often use automated systems to demand ‘take down’ notices, so you might get them to reverse course if you ask vocally on social media.
But that doesn’t explain what copyright means, or how we breach it when we 3D print. To really think about copyright and 3D printing, you need to consider both the digital design and then the printed out design of the ‘creative work’. Copyright law understands those as two different things. There’s a lot of debate around which part of the digital design or the printed object is copyrightable, for various reasons, in various countries. Then there is the consideration of whether companies will try to stop individual designers copying their works, or whether they will try to stop 3D printing companies, or internet companies, from making technologies that help people copy their works. Then courts will have to decide whether those technologies only help break copyright, or if they have other legitimate uses before there is an order to change a sharing website or a 3D printing technology. It seems 3D printers have lots of legitimate uses, so no one is coming to take yours away any time soon. However, justified or not, at the time being, ‘they’ might ask you to take down a few designs without an easy recourse available.
OK, tell me more about patents
On the one hand, patents will probably not be very important to domestic 3D printers. There’s little chance of you infringing on someone’s patent if you’re interested in printing and designing creative goods. Patents instead cover new, useful, and non-obvious technical solutions or process that help solve a problem. You have to file a patent to gain the rights associated with it. If you are inventing things – don’t post the 3D designs online until you’ve filed your patent(s).
On the other hand, as lots of ‘makers’ make things via their 3D printers, and figure out solutions to their own problems, they could technically be infringing on someone else’s patent. For instance, if it’s always bugged you that there wasn’t a gadget to peel a banana, and you figure out a new design to 3D print that would solve that problem, make sure it’s not too similar to Bob and Susan’s banana peeler, which they patented in 2014.
OK, What about design and trademarks?
Design in intellectual property considers how things look and/or are shaped, and how that lets you identify or resonate with a brand. Australia describes design as ‘what makes a product look the way it does’, including features of shape, configuration, pattern or ornamentation of a product.
Trademarks are recognisable signs and expressions that identify products and services as coming from a particular source/company/brand. You can tell a logo or phrase is trademarked when you see this nifty symbol: ™. They help let consumers know that what they pay for is from where they think it is.
Trademarks can only be prosecuted if:
(a) the trademarked item and the copied item look very similar; and
(b) the copier receives money for copied object
If you think you’re at risk of fitting both of these criteria, consider removing the items from any public repositories. If someone is using your trademark online, lawyer up (or ask for a DMCA take down – even though it’s not technically copyright, the DMCA is a very powerful tool).
In summary, don’t use the trademark of others in your own designs, or to profit from those designs. If you use a trademarked shape in your design don’t sell those objects. Likewise, if you design something yourself that looks like someone else’s design, don’t sell it.
How do I assert my rights for my design?
Registering your rights might be easy, but limiting the damage someone else might do by using you intellectual property is actually quite hard. 3D printing doesn’t make it any easier.
Australians can start at IP Australia if they feel they’ve suffered from intellectual property infringement. And remember to register your designs and your trade marks before you post them!
Scholars have noted that in the creative making space it is often smaller designers that find their work appropriated elsewhere without their knowledge, rather than the other way around. There are more than a few examples of Australian Companies like Cotton On and Kmart, as well as internationals like Cody Foster and Co., taking the intellectual property of others and making money on their own interpretation of it.
Where can I get more information?
See our white paper on these issues and more in the resources section of this website. For the more academically-minded, we recommend the work by Dr. Angela Daly, Socio-Legal Aspects of the 3D Printing Revolution. Details are available here.
If you’re seriously concerned by the consequences of your designs, please consider seeking professional legal advice. We are only offering general observations as guides, based on previous case law and expert interpretation of current law – we are not giving legal advice. See our white paper for more detail
3D printing involves many different parts, processes and materials, and there are a fair number of points where you might have issues. This section provides answers to frequently asked questions, helping you avoid problems and letting you know what the latest research has to say.
Physical Safety (printer)
Remember that a 3D printer is a piece of mechanical equipment. While less dangerous than a power tool, printers can include parts like extrusion nozzles that commonly heats to around 200C.
A 3D printer probably shouldn’t be left unattended, in the case of a malfunction and potential of fire. This is unlikely, but if an extruder isn’t heating properly, or the printer loses its proper height calibration settings, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Physical Safety (print material)
There are numerous types of material that are used to print in 3D. It’s important to check with the manufacturer what their properties are. To find out, look to the MSDS sheet that comes with your material, they will specify whether that material is approved to be food safe.
In general, PLA based materials are thought to be “Generally Recognized As Safe” for their intended uses, including eating off, however, manufactures can add new chemicals to materials so always double check.
However, another issue is that some print nozzles give off harmful chemicals when they extrude material. Stainless steal nozzles are thought to avoid this problem, but again, check with the manufacturer.
For food use especially, it turns out that bacteria that builds up on 3D printed goods is hard to get off; try not to let food sit in 3D printed goods for very long. Or, apply an epoxy coating to your print. Either way, for general consumer machines, food and 3D printed goods can touch, but shouldn’t hang out too long.
Like anything you download from the Internet, 3D printing files may host viruses or other malicious computer code (collectively referred to as ‘malware’). This is unlikely on larger public sites, such as Thingiverse, but it becomes more likely if you’re downloading files off a random WordPress blog. You’re no more likely to have a malware problem with a 3D printer file than from any other source.
If you think that you’ve downloaded something that might be nasty, run it through your computer’s anti-virus software before you open it up.
Children and pets
Like anything else that can be connected to the Internet, 3D printers are capable of producing content that you might not want your children to access.
Readers may already be aware of the existing capacity of 3D printers to print weaponry and erotica. But this issue also extends to other things, such as political, controversial, offensive or other dangerous objects.
Even seemingly safe designs can unintentionally cause problems for kids and pets. Bits of support material that fall off can be a danger for hungry mouths. Some of the off cuts from objects can be very sharp, and could injure pets or children internally.
Frankly, there are easier ways to make or find working firearms than using consumer 3D printers. This holds true in Australia (where this site is based) and the U.S. (where people tend to want the right to carry arms).
Remember, there are already laws on the book that make it illegal to hold firearms without a permit or make firearms without a permit that have nothing to do with 3D printing. We strongly suggest abiding by those laws.
Really though, guns
We hear you. It’s in the news, and, Australian state parliament. In 2015 New South Wales amended its firearms act to, among other things, include a clause that says ‘A person must not possess a digital blueprint for the manufacture of a firearm on a 3D printer or on an electronic milling machine… [or face a] Maximum penalty: imprisonment for 14 years. So in New South Wales, it’s the blueprint that’s the problem. Which, while trying to protect people, is a bit hard to enforce. Google ‘m16 blueprint’ and you’ll find out why. You won’t go to jail for Googling that; Google would have to be held accountable first. Basically, if you decide to make firearms using any manufacturing technology, you need to understand how to do so within existing laws.
Eventually, though, there are going to be some hard decisions about how to enforce laws that we have, and new ones owe make. In Australia, the Commonwealth’s own report on 3D printing firearms suggested “it seems that current laws pertaining to firearms would apply equally to 3D printed firearms and firearm parts”. It also suggested that to stop overreactions and ensure uniform legislation across Australia, the government should continue to monitor the risks posed by 3D manufacturing in relation to the manufacture of firearms and “consider further regulatory measures if the need arises.” The report also mentions that
The committee … does not accept that banning the individual use of 3D printers or introducing a character test for ownership is either necessary or practical.
3D Printing in Our Society
There’s more to society than trade law and safety concerns, and in this section we outline some of the things that people asked us about being good citizens while they 3D print. From the environment to remixing the work of others, there are cultural considerations that make up the 3D printing community, just like any other.
Privacy around who prints what is important. What we make may say a lot about us, and having strangers know this could be an uncomfortable violation of privacy. Be wary of how sites use your data as you search for your next print. Also, think about how you could be respectful of other peoples’ privacy as you 3D print and share files online.
For instance, people can print things that they consider private to them. We point this out because there are already laws around ‘revenge porn’ in Australia that might apply to ‘private’ 3D prints. Victoria made it a criminal offence to maliciously distribute intimate images without the person’s consent in 2014.
The scans and 3D prints of people in Australia – intimate or otherwise – might also be designated sensitive personal information by Australian privacy law. Although no specific laws exist around distributing face or body scanned 3D prints, consider these as personal information that should not be shared without consent.
Think before you print
3D printing tantalises us with endless possibilities limited only by our imagination and skill level. But what we put into the world has a real impact on the people around us.
Be aware that some of the things that you might want to print, or otherwise copy, might not be seen as an appropriate action to some people. Just because someone else has designed or printed something doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily appropriate for you to also produce it.
It's not just about the money
Intellectual Property concerns are often framed as being about money. But sometimes people don’t want money, they want recognition. Or maybe somebody has designed something very personal to them, and they’d rather no one else print it out, keeping it one of a kind. These types of considerations go beyond the economics of 3D printing and think about what new forms of production through 3D printing mean culturally. Consider more than the dollar sign as you think about what you print.
As 3D printing is easily decentralised, and thus very hard to restrict, one way to regulate and control what people print is to ensure transparency around what is printed. Do we as a society expect what people print in a local shop to be public knowledge? To be known by the government? Even if consumers print it in their own home?
3D printing combines digital abundance (more objects than you can imagine!) with physical production (as many objects as your printer can print!). That means that while 3D printing processes might be very efficient, and save energy compared to other forms of manufacture, people might make a lot more of things than they bought before. Things that pile-up. Things that get boring and are easily replaced. While some material can be recycled to 3D print again, the efficiency is not 100%. Remember there is plastic waste created in the printing process and it’s very rare for any print job to work out perfectly the first time. You will likely produce a great deal of plastic waste before your final version of your object.
Conspicuous consumption of 3D printed goods will become easier and easier as the technology evolves. It’s up to the users of 3D printers to decide how they will use the technology and value the things they make.