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Copyright Law and the Future of 3D Printing

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By William Vogeler, Esq. on March 27, 2017 12:59 PM

What came first in the world of copyright and 3D printing, the egg or the egg holder?

Like the chicken-and-the-egg question, the copyright question seems so simple at first. The egg, right? You can't have an egg holder without an egg?

But throw in a U.S. Supreme Court decision and an industry watching it like a hawk, and you have the potential for a scrambled mess. At least, some are predicting the death of 3D printing while its still emerging.

Cheerleader Uniforms

With 3D printing and other industries awaiting its impact, the copyright case literally is about decorations on cheerleader uniforms. The concerns come from its possible application to previously uncopyrightable things.

The court said that uniform designs cannot be copyrighted, but decorations on them can be. That's because copyright doesn't generally cover clothing and other useful articles. The new rule applies only if the decorative features can be separated from the useful features.

"To be clear, the only feature of the cheerleading uniform eligible for a copyright in this case is the two-dimensional work of art fixed in the tangible medium of the uniform fabric," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority.

The justices clarified the ruling -- more than once -- because apparently it was confusing to at least two dissenters and an entire industry.

Form and Function Meet

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said sometimes useful articles and artistic designs cannot be separated.

"Indeed, great industrial design may well include design that is inseparable from the useful article-where, as Frank Lloyd Wright put it, 'form and function are one,'" Breyer wrote.

This is where the eggs come in. Above the Law blogged that the decision may spell disaster for 3D printing. Shapeways, a 3D printing company with a blog, is concerned as well.

"Why should the 3D printing community care about a case involving cheerleader uniforms again?" the company asks. "Because the case is really about a question that comes up often in the world of 3D printed objects."

Both blogs illustrate the problem with the birdsnest egg cup. The cup is a 3D-printed egg-holder that resembles a nest. Cute.

It is practically impossible to separate the design from the useful function for copyright purposes, they say. There it is, in a nutshell.

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