Your Printer is Like iTunes: DRM & the 3D Printing “Revolution”

By Fred Chasen, Isha Dandavate, Sydney Friedman, Vanessa McAfee, Morgan Wallace

So how is your printer like iTunes? Well, it isn’t yet. But as 3D printing has entered the market, it opens up a host of legal questions that are similar to those faced by applications and hardware companies that facilitate the consumption of mp3s. So, just as the courts use past precedents to address unfamiliar issues brought about by new technology, we consider previous approaches to DRM and personal use to shed light upon the opportunities and potential copyright issues brought about by 3D printing.

What’s the issue?
Advances in 3D printing and modeling have allowed people to easily use a personal computer for the purpose of creating physical objects. With these advances there is a growing market for “recipes” that a person can download and use as blueprints for printing. So, the issue is whether the sharing and use of these downloaded recipes files could potentially infringe upon copyright, and how digital rights management (DRM) should/could be leveraged to bring a balance between consumer expectations and vendor copyrights.

The exact way in which the DRM will function for these recipe files is still mostly theoretical. Intellectual Ventures has been awarded a patent on 3D printing rights management, but the company has not actually created a DRM system. From their track record as alleged “patent trolls,” it seems that Intellectual Ventures is banking on interest from other companies who will license the patent to create such a system.

Why is this important?
As 3D printing penetrates the mass market, it could potentially impact the market for a wide range of products, assuming that anything from guns to baby strollers could be printed. Giving the mass market an ability to produce objects once available only through manufacturers and retailers raises questions around copyright, DRM, and expectations for personal use.

The question also arises, what happens when a printer is able to make derivative works? This problem arose in this week’s assigned reading, when the Kindle 2 added a text-to-speech feature that could potentially replace the audiobooks market. In the context of 3D printing, would DRM prevent users from excerpting or transforming parts of the recipes? And does this functionality fall in the realm of reasonable expectations for personal use?

As we see in the entertainment space, efforts have been made to outline reasonable expectations of personal use. Mulligan et. al. argue in “How DRM-Based Content Delivery Systems Disrupt Expectations of ‘Personal Use’” that the music DRM has handicapped personal and fair use by limiting sharing and other functionality necessary for engaging with music. So we can conclude that there is a paramount need for evaluating reasonable expectations of personal use in the context of 3D printing in order to ensure that copyright interests are reconciled with consumer expectations for use.

Arguments & Implications

The scope and nature of 3D printing is arguably larger and more varied than that of music consumption– there are a limited set of ways in which people can consume music, but with 3D printing, the types of objects that could be printed are potentially infinite. Accordingly, the expectations of personal use of 3D printers would be varied depending on what is being printed. This makes it difficult to assess the reasonable expectations of personal use for the act of 3D printing.

So we break down the issue at hand and consider, most specifically, protection of the copyrights on the files (recipes) used to print rather than the printed objects themselves, therefore, considerations from DRM in the entertainment industry could be applied here. DRM, if implemented for these files, will likely prevent unauthorized sharing of a recipe, and place a limit on the number of times a recipe can be printed and on how many systems the recipe can be used on, just as music DRM does now. We argue that the future DRM system should be implemented in a way that is consistent with consumer’s expectations of personal use which, as defined by Mulligan et. al., include portability of files, excerpting and modifying files, and a limited relationship between users and copyright holders.

It is reasonable to expect that consumers will want to treat their 3D design files as they do other files on their computer. Portability will be important as consumers might expect to be able to e-mail designs to friends and family, store design files on their mobile phones or cloud storage systems, or use multiple 3D printers. It is also reasonable to assume that consumers may want to modify designs by either changing the physical properties of an object such as size or type of material. If DRM is implemented, designers should consider these expected personal use cases and implement the system in a way that prevents users from unknowingly violating copyright law.

Mulligan et. al. also discuss the shift in privacy under new DRM-based systems.  Instead of purchases being nearly anonymous to the copyright holder as they are in cash purchases from a distributor, information is collected directly by copyright holders.  In the DRM-based environment, copyright holders will construct business models around their interest of selling licenses, not physical goods.  The area of digital printing can easily go this way as well.  If implemented, users will have to go directly to the copyright holder to seek permission to print an object.  The copyright holders will soon be able to evaluate, take statistics and tailor their models to this new market, which will surely clash with distribution models seen previously.  Therefore, consumers will have to adjust to new expectations of privacy under the new copyright holder-led model.


As argued by Mulligan et. al., DRM must be refined to reflect the balance of copyright law. While courts wish to further progress of science and the useful arts by allowing authors to protect their work, there is also a limitations on the scope of copyright protections for the sake of consumers. Designing a system that is better tailored to suit the interest of both parties would include allowing for file sharing between parties (in a limited, reasonable way), allowing for “unlimited” file copying in ways that still create time and energy costs for users, allowing for transformation of the recipes created, and als protecting user privacy.

Like the development of the mp3 player, 3D printing will make possible a host of ways in which users and copyright holders can interact and transact business. However, it could also encourage copyright holders to implement stringent limitations on user experience. By more clearly defining legally reasonable expectations for personal use, technologists, policy makers and the courts will protect the balance of copyright law.