Restrictions thwart 3D printing exemption

Library of Congress' rules for unlocking 3D printers thwart the exemption. Courtesy of Amanda Slater, Flickr.

Library of Congress’ rules for unlocking 3D printers thwart the exemption. Courtesy of Amanda Slater, Flickr.

Copyright Office to makers: Break unfair 3D printing DRM – but not really.

Since late last year, the American Library Association has been tracking and participating in the latest round of the 1201 Rulemaking. Through this rulemaking process, the Copyright Office evaluates petitions for hacking barriers to digital content (formally known as Digital Rights Management) for lawful purposes. (ALA recently welcomed exemptions for the use of film clip excerpts for educational purposes as well as MOOCs and literacy programs offered by libraries and museums–see related statement).

As you might imagine – given its increasing salience in tech and policy discussions – 3D printing was a topic for consideration in the 1201 proceedings this time around. In keeping with ALA’s efforts to establish the library community as a major player in the ongoing efforts to create frameworks for using and providing access to 3D printers, ALA’s Washington D.C. Copyright team was one of the leading voices in the 3D printing debates pursuant to the 1201 Rulemaking. The Library Copyright Alliance (LCA) – a library organization triumvirate including ALA, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Association of College and Research libraries (ACRL) – joined D.C.-based think tank Public Knowledge in standing up for fair access to 3D printing technology.

LCA and Public Knowledge asserted that the Copyright Office should formally allow users to break digital locks designed to limit the types of filaments a 3D printer will print with because doing so
does not violate copyright law. Last week, the Copyright Office rendered its verdict on our argument, and…well, we got news alright. Here’s what it said:

The exemption [to the prohibition against breaking the digital locks] shall not extend to any computer program on a 3D printer that produces goods or materials for use in commerce the physical production of which is subject to legal or regulatory oversight…

So, in other words, if your printer has a digital lock limiting the kinds of materials that can be used in the printing process, as a user you can break that lock – but only if:

  1. Your printer is not capable of printing goods or materials intended for use in commerce.
  2. Your printer is not capable of printing goods or materials that are subject to legal or regulatory oversight.

You don’t have to marinate long over these two qualifications to be perplexed, and even vexed by the Copyright Office’s finding. Re: #1 – it’s hard to imagine a printer that’s not at least capable of printing an item that’s designed to be marketed. Re: #2 – it’s similarly hard to imagine a 3D printer that’s not at least capable of printing an item that’s subject to legal or regulatory oversight. One might even argue that virtually every item under the sun is, to some degree, subject to oversight of this kind.

Boiling it down, the Copyright Office seems to have said, “If your 3D printer has a filament-restricting technology, go ahead and circumvent it – as long as the 3D printer isn’t…well…a 3D printer.” It would be funny if it weren’t such unfortunate news for users and providers of 3D printing technology.

For a more thorough analysis of the Copyright Office’s Section 1201 3D printing rules, read a blog post by Michael Weinberg, formerly of Public Knowledge, now of 3D printing marketplace Shapeways.

About Charlie Wapner

Charlie Wapner is an information policy analyst for the Office for Information Technology Policy.

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