The recent controversy over misuse of Thingiverse 3D models highlights an ongoing issue facing all 3D designers: theft.
As you may have read in our previous story, an eBay entrepreneur violated the licenses of multiple 3D models stored on Thingiverse by selling prints from them. These 3D models held creative commons licensing that specifically prohibited commercial use. After a bit of an internet kerfuffle, the offending eBay store was taken down as described by MakerBot here.
The world is saved. Or is it?
I think not, as this particular case was but one example of many that occur almost constantly, and it must drive 3D designers to high levels of frustration.
The problem faced by 3D designers is to get noticed. One excellent method of doing so is to release “free” versions of selected works to popular sharing sites like Thingiverse, where volumes of viewers may encounter their work. A small percentage of those views will result in purchases of other, better works from pay-for 3D services, and that’s how some designers make their money.
It’s almost a requirement for designers to release “something” to get noticed, so you’ll almost always find at least a few works from most designers on Thingiverse or similar 3D model repositories.
But for the artist, releasing a work that took hours, days or even weeks to develop, must be tremendously difficult, as they have no technological protection for the work once uploaded to a sharing site. Yes, they can specify a license for it, but there’s nothing physical stopping a wayward viewer from downloading the 3D model and using it in prohibited ways.
That’s precisely what the former eBay store did: download and reuse without regard for the license.
Aside from eBay, there are many other places where similar misuse of 3D models may occur. In the past few years I’ve noticed a small explosion of 3D model repository sites, where proprietors are desperate to build up the quantity of 3D models in their environment. Often the models in such sites are not submitted by designers, but simply copied from other repositories.
That copying may – or may not – carry the intended license with it. Thus, users of the copied material may not even know they are actually violating a license that wasn’t presented to them.
The worst part for the designer is simply not knowing. How can a designer even try to find these copies and verify that they are being used incorrectly? There are new sites popping up all the time, sometimes in faraway jurisdictions where even if detected, there is no legal means to stop the activity.
All this suggests that there is a need for some kind of technical protocol to truly protect valuable 3D designs. I’m not aware of any such protocol under development, however, and even if one were, it may be viewed negatively by some 3D users, who have come to expect “free” 3D models.
It is possible that this situation is actually inhibiting the growth of 3D printing, as some designers recognize the difficulty of the situation and simply avoid it entirely.
But, as the access to 3D printing grows, so will the demand for 3D models. That increased demand will ultimately drive the market to seek a technological solution.
Image Credit: Wikipedia