Theft of a file is still theft.
In one of those things we don’t really think we need to say, don’t steal files.
But it turns out we do need to say it. Again and again. Because people aren’t getting it.
For the most part, those in the 3D printing community are just that: a community. There’s a huge amount of camaraderie and a sense of “we’re all in this together” that permeates many segments of that community, particularly among artists, makers, dreamers — creators.
The Importance Of Design
Even when it comes to pure industry, one of the driving focuses in advancing 3D printing across the board is the all-important design for additive manufacturing (DfAM).
Design is critical. Without a printable design, you can’t print anything: that much seems pretty obvious. DfAM often focuses on creating files that leverage the unique qualities of additive manufacturing (e.g., lightweighting, topology optimization, lattice structures, part consolidation, bioinspired design) to make things in ways they literally could not be made before.
DfAM is a drive in education, from school-age to professional upskilling — because design matters.
The digital file is what goes into the 3D printer to make the physical build happen. Creating it is no simple process; it takes real skill. That skill, once learned, makes subsequent creations take less time, but only because of the expertise built, just like any other skill.
There’s some popular misconception out there that because something can be done relatively quickly and at a computer, it must be easy. And that means it must be freely obtainable, in some strange leap of logic.
A popular reddit community called “Choosing Beggars” often features posts from artists and graphic designers whose hard work is requested for free (often “for exposure”).
Let’s be very clear about this: designers may love what they do, but professional designers are just that. Professional. It’s a job. Jobs pay money.
“Art Theft Sucks”
I recently heard from brilliant designer Melissa Ng, the founder of Lumecluster, that she’d discovered someone had not only stolen her design files but was selling them as their own.
Another designer saw photos of a 3D print of a familiar mask online and directed Melissa that way, where she soon discovered that the maker had purchased the files on a popular design repository. Some of her designs were there along with another designer’s (who she in turn alerted).
She reached out to the site and the files were taken down and the unscrupulous shop closed.
Good — but that’s not the whole story.
Melissa was kind enough to share her perspective with us; it’s her story, so we’ll let her tell it:
“So, sometimes I 3D print my designs or I 3D print master copies before making molds and casting them in a variety of materials. Depending on the intricate complexity or functionality, some designs can take anywhere between a week to a few years (like my modular Phoenix Gauntlet design) to complete because of research, sketching, designing, prototyping, mold making, materials testing, stress testing, redesign, casting, finishing, and other labor involved in bringing a creation to life.
Sure, some of the simpler designs may not require the same intensity as a piece that involves more articulation and/or functionality. But none of this seems to matter to those who constantly email me some variation of, ‘Can you send me your STLs? Thanks,’ or to those who steal files or even 3D scan an artist’s work for their own profit.
In fact, too many of my artist friends who don’t even 3D model have had their works stolen by people who 3D scan and make a profit off of their work. It’s easy because all the work has already been done for them.
On the one hand, I am thrilled to know people can create, replicate, and 3D print almost anything to their heart’s content. It has given life to a totally new kind of excitement for making, experimenting, and using those explorations as a learning tool. After all, 3D printing is what inspired me to take a stab at 3D modeling the first time in 2013 and to create my very first 3D model, the Illumination Dreamer Mask.
On the other hand, the lines have become blurred when it comes to whether or not we really should be asking for / taking whatever we can get our hands (or 3D scanners) on.
((For anyone who doesn’t know, this mask was my very first mask design that I created at a low point in my life. It was also my first 3D design and my first 3D print that happened to win in a competition…and it’s the main reason Lumecluster even exists. It was my last ditch effort to decide if I really could pursue life as an artist and push back against the societal pressures that constantly told me my dreams were a joke. But this mask became a turning point in my life and I was able to start making a living off of my art.))
But art theft is not a new problem. And while I am a firm believer that people who enjoy and respect an artist’s work will continue to purchase from the original creator, it’s just still all too common for people to undervalue the work and labor of an artist.
Maybe it’s because so many art / 3D printing hobbyists who are doing it purely for fun innocently assume everyone else is doing it for the same reasons. Or maybe there are people who just don’t care because they want what they want.
Art theft will always happen and it will always sting because thieves are taking from artists who are putting their hearts into their work. All I can hope for is that people will call out or not support a thief when you see one.”
Meliss isn’t sure how her files were stolen; she’s never released them.
All of her obtainable designs are available for sale via Lumecluster (including her beautiful Phoenix gauntlets and the newer modular updates that immediately filled all pre-order slots). They’ve never been DIY-targeted.
Perhaps the mask was reverse engineered, with a legitimately purchased piece 3D scanned and cleaned up into a new printable file. If that was the case, the thief was quite talented, as that would take quite a while. I don’t know how they did it, but I’d guess not that way; if they had, they likely would have wanted to charge more than $6 for the files to account for their own labor in the endeavor. (Remember how people like to be paid for their time?)
Perhaps there was some sneakier route to the theft, with some hacking or otherwise especially hinky means involved. Again this would be quite involved and require a good amount of effort, which was expended on both the Dreamer mask and the other designer’s pieces.
However it happened, the moral of the story is simple: it shouldn’t have.
The community is no stranger, sadly, to such events; we may be reminded of a few years ago a shady company 3D printing and selling other designers’ work on eBay and calling it a business. And of course general sales of stolen files aren’t unheard of.
What some might not stop to think about in the pursuit of getting a good deal on good art: it’s not good for the artist. Think of pirating movies or music; it might seem like no one gets hurt, but that’s not the case. Especially for individual artists who genuinely do live by their legitimate sales, piracy is directly damaging.
We’re not here to be any sort of morality police, but frankly happenings like this go against common sense and common decency.
If you like the art, support the artist. The right way.