A few days ago I spoke with Simone Fontana, who is part of a new generation of 3D designers, born with 3D printing in mind. He pointed out an issue that has been happening for some time but is now reaching worrying proportions: that of stolen 3D designs sold for a profit. How can designers protect themselves and what are the implication of a phenomenon which we could define is basically a form of “person to person IP theft”?
Simone has been dedicating his creative work to reproducing products from popular entertainment culture. He shares them with his community of followers through his successful Youtube channel FNTSMN and,mainly for free, on networks such as Thingiverse. He does this to gain visibility for his professional 3D modeling activities and also provides communities of gamers or cosplayers with the possibility to get products they want and cannot get anywhere else.
Your Stolen 3D Designs on Sale
This is really what designing for 3D printing and open source is all about. You create something people like, they use it and credit you for what you did. However, in many cases, it is not so. Apparently Simone he has to spend a long time, every day, searching for people who take his designs and use them to 3D print items that they sell for a profit, without recognizing him, or any designer like him, any credit, let alone royalties.
This happens on portals such as Etsy, which, of course, removes the products based on stolen IP’s whenever notified. However this means they have to be notified and a single designer rarely is able to keep track of where the designs go and find them in the global landscape.
When we talk about the future of IP protection for physical objects we often think that 3D printing will lead to scenario similar to that of digital content sharing, when the music, movie and videogame industry were severely disrupted by p2p content sharing. Today all these industries have re-emerged stronger than ever thanks to those digital distribution systems that they chose to ignore instead of embrace. However in 3D printing things are different.
P2P Theft is not like P2P Sharing
The only digital objects that today could by shared are expensive prototypes and illegally sharing an expensive industrial prototype is not like sharing an illicitly downloaded movie or mp3. It is an offense which companies would criminally purse immediately. Jewelry makers may be at risk but only partially since the actual manufacturing process and materials still represent the most significant costs of any jewel. It will be a long time before mass product companies (such as toy or clothing manufacturers) implement a digital distribution business models and even then most systems will already be in place to do so legally and protect IP’s.
That’s why future issues in IP property theft will likely concern cases like Simone Fontana’s, where the IP is owned by a person (rather than a company) and stolen by another person, thus establishing a sort of “p2p theft” rather than p2p content sharing. Simone’s specific case shows that entertainment companies generally appreciate designers to recreate 3D models based on their properties for purely non-profit and communication purposes, while it is the designer who becomes victim of IP theft.
Working With the Entertainment Industry
Simone works directly with major videogame publishers, like Bethesda, who have embraced his work and used it for communication and advertising purposes, to raise awareness on their game properties in an ever more competitive and saturated videogame industry. Another similar case, involving designer Agustin Flowalistik’s Low Poly Pokemon, further exemplifies this.
At the time Nintendo had requested a 3D printed Low Poly Pokemon design to be removed from Shapeways. Flowalistik explained that one of his designs, which he created with a strictly with non commercial Creative Commons license, had been passed from user to user gradually losing the CC license information. He had found it on sale on portals around the world. Contacted, Nintendo explained that, while they never explicitly grant permission, sometimes their properties can be used for non-profit purposes such as recreating a design for 3D printing. That implicit permission to use Nintendo IP’s does not in any way concern for profit use. The same applies in most cases.
New digital systems, such as Source3 and MakeitLEO, are already being set in place to help protect designers from digital property thefts but it will still be a long time before they and their secure file formats are truly accessible to all designers and fully compatible with all 3D printers. In the meantime designers like Simone Fontana will need to keep an eye out, or, actually, an “Etsy out” for p2p thieves.