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The Legal Fight to Put Whatever You Want In a 3D Printer

A 3D printing company is trying to deny legal protection to hobbyists.
Image: Flickr/Keith Kissel

If Stratasys has their way, a hobbyist trying out some new kind of gunk in their 3D printer, just to see if it works, could be at risk of prosecution under US law.

In late March, the 3D printer manufacturer filed a request that asked the US Copyright Office to deny a petition that would legally protect 3D printer owners who want to "jailbreak" their machines. The petition, filed in November of 2014 by digital rights group Public Knowledge, asked for an exemption to legislation meant to prevent product tampering. Tinkerers need to be able to circumvent the chip-based verification systems on printer feed cartridges, the petition argued, in order to experiment with printing materials not approved by the manufacturer.


The legislation in question is US Code 1201, which makes circumventing technological protection measures (TPMs) built-in to consumer products a crime. Exemptions from 1201 are considered every three years as part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act rulemaking process, and they're granted on the grounds that the restriction on a certain class of technologies—in this case, 3D printers—would stymie the creation of works that don't infringe copyright.

"Right now, there's ambiguity, and users are anxious about the liability of using outside material," said Michael Weinberg, the author of the petition. "I actually don't think that's a fact, but I realize that it's enough for Stratasys to come after you, and you'd have to litigate that question. That costs money, and it's enough to chill most average users."

The ambiguity arises because US Code 1201 does not govern copyright. Its purpose is to make tampering with products that have digital protections in place against the law, whatever the eventual goal.

"Nobody's looking for an exception to copyright law"

For example, jailbreaking your smartphone to get access to more apps could be considered a violation of 1201, although what you do with your phone after that may not be in violation of copyright law. An exemption is meant to protect you from possible litigation under 1201 if you jailbreak, as long as you don't infringe copyright with your jailbroken device.


"Nobody's looking for an exception to copyright law," said Parker Higgins, director of copyright activism for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "They're saying that they would be allowed to do this under copyright law, and 1201 is getting in the way."

Another example is the case of farmers who might want to modify the programming their modern, computerized John Deere tractor to get the software they need to till their land, or raise their livestock. John Deere filed its own statement to the Copyright Office, claiming that farmers only receive an "implied license" to use a tractor when they buy one. An exemption under 1201 would mean that farmers could hack away and do their jobs without fear of a lawsuit.

Stratasys' case against granting this exemption is that the petitioners didn't adequately establish that not being able to use unapproved materials in their printers would disrupt innovation. Hobbyists can still build their own open source 3D printers, after all. Moreover, the filing states, the petitioners did not lay out all the ways that a 3D printer could be hacked in order to print materials not approved by the manufacturer, nor did they describe cases in which a work that infringes on copyright could be produced.

This whole mess could be avoided by amendments to 1201

"I don't know if they're trying to keep the ambiguity, or showing that they're willing to being a lot of legal firepower to the question," Weinberg said. "But the end result will be that you'll have people who would be experimenting with new materials or finding a source of materials that's cheaper, and they wouldn't be able to do that."

Stratasys did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment.

According to Higgins, this whole mess could be avoided by amendments to 1201 that narrow the scope of the law to only apply to copyright infringement. As it stands, any circumvention of TPMs requires an official exemption to be totally free of risk. Thankfully, that may happen sooner, rather than later.

The Unlocking Technology Act of 2015—originally introduced in 2013 by California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren—would make this exact change. If passed, a clause would be added to 1201's carte blanche ban on tampering with the caveat that it will only apply if the tampering is being undertaken "in order to infringe or facilitate infringement of a copyright in a work protected under this title." The act is currently being considered by a congressional committee, after which it may be sent to the Senate or House of Representatives.

Until then, it seems like we're stuck in yet another copyright quagmire stemming from vague laws and companies trying to make them work to their advantage.