Time for everyone’s favorite topic – intellectual property law! It’s a big part of the creation of a smoothly functioning 3D printing economy, especially with the rise of sites that rely on user-generated content, such as Shapeways and Thingiverse. The risk of copyright infringement is by no means limited to 3D printing; sites like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are rife with unscrupulous users happy to claim other people’s work as their own. It’s a risk that came with the Internet, and it’s not one that’s likely to go away, despite strong efforts to battle it.
So how do sites like Shapeways, for example, protect themselves from litigation should they unwittingly carry designs that a user is wrongly claiming as his or her own? Safe harbor laws. Basically, safe harbors protect sites that carry user-generated content by holding them free of responsibility for any copyright infringement happening on their sites without their knowledge. It makes sense – without safe harbor, sites would have to clear every single thing uploaded by users with their legal departments before allowing them to be posted. That means every model, video, image, comment, etc. – it’s just not possible.
“Fortunately, the safe harbors allow sites such as Shapeways to assume that content posted by our users does not infringe on copyright until we hear from a rightsholder,” legal expert Michael Weinberg explains. “At that point we quickly take the content down to initiate the notice-and-takedown process.”
One of the most high-profile recent cases involving stolen intellectual property in the 3D printing world was last year’s debacle involving an eBay user trying to profit off of other people’s Thingiverse designs – and then insisting that they had done nothing wrong. The eBay seller was shut down and publicly shamed for their unapologetic infringement, with Thingiverse owner MakerBot posting a public statement.
Quieter cases of copyright infringement happen every day, though, and the US Copyright Office has been conducting a multi-year study of the efficacy of safe harbor laws outlined in Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA was established in 1998, in the early days of the Internet, and thus is pretty antiquated now – there’s a lot more user-generated content out there now, and thus a lot more intellectual property theft, so the Copyright Office recognizes that adjustments will likely need to be made.
Shapeways and other affected websites have been actively contributing to the study by submitting comments on how the existing legislation works – or doesn’t work – for them and the digital world in general. This week, Shapeways, along with Kickstarter, MakerBot, and Meetup, submitted their latest round of comments, in which two major points were made.
“First, we noted that the DMCA copyright process continues to be heavily influenced by trademark law. Including a claim of trademark infringement effectively removes an accusation of infringement from the DMCA process,” Weinberg states. “Among other things, that makes it very hard for users accused of infringement to challenge that accusation. We believe any study on the DMCA copyright process should recognize that element of how the process works in the real world.”
While most notable cases of copyright infringement tend to elicit reactions that jump to the defense of the infringed-upon party, not all situations are as black and white as the eBay vs. Thingiverse case. Take the cheerleader uniform case, which prompted Shapeways and other organizations to demand that the Supreme Court clarify their murky intellectual property laws. It’s not always easy to determine whether something is infringement, and those accused of violations don’t have an easy time defending themselves.
The second point focused on the framing of much of the discussion in the study, in particular a series of roundtables held by the Copyright Office as well as an early round of comments.
“In both the earlier round and at the roundtables, a great deal of attention was paid to how the largest online platform – Google – interacted with the safe harbors,” says Weinberg. “In our second point we tried to remind the Copyright Office that the vast majority of websites protected by the safe harbor are not dealing with millions of automated takedown requests a year. We therefore suggested that shaping solutions or conclusions with that scenario in mind would overlook how the safe harbors operated in the vast majority of cases.”
According to Shapeways, this most recent round of comments should be the last, and they expect that the Copyright Office will release their report on safe harbors at some point – though it’s unclear when. You can read the full text of the most recent comments submitted to the Copyright Office here. Discuss in the Shapeways forum at 3DPB.com.[Source: Shapeways]