Physical objects and the-internet-as-copying-machine

Paul Raven @ 08-02-2011

If you think we’re struggling to police the duplication of non-physical items on the internet, just wait until 3D printing gets a little bit more commonplace. Here’s a sort of soft-run test case at Fabbaloo, wherein a Thingiverse user subbed a set of playing piece designs for the Settlers of Catan board game. Copyright infringement? Well, possibly not, at least as things stand:

Another view comes from website Public Knowledge, who have taken the time to analyze this a bit deeper. Their approach was to examine each of the methods of protecting ideas: Copyright, Patent and Trademark. What did they determine?

  • Copyright: They believe that copyright extends only to the images and logos used by the game. Since the Thingiverse objects don’t include or attempt to include the images, they likely don’t violate copyright. The object designs are effectively not copyrightable, since they are simply common shapes and would be considered “functional objects”.
  • Patent: Patents are typically used to protect the rules of the game, rather than its components. In this case, the inventor did not patent the game, and even if he did, it would be expiring in 2015 anyway.
  • Trademark: A trademark protects only the icon or symbol of a product. In this case, the Thingiverse submission did not use in any way the trademark.

It then appears that the offending Thingiverse user is likely not offending at all. But if that’s the case, then this opens up a pretty wide hole in the generation of intellectual property. We may see a lot more “functional objects” appearing in the future, and it’s not sure how this may affect the inventors.

One thing’s for sure – there’ll be no shortage of work for lawyers.

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