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California talks address challenge of attribution in 3D printing

If you’d told me upon joining the staff of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) two-plus years ago that I’d be invited to spend a workday mulling over the proper way to credit creators of 3D printed objects, I would have told you to take your time machine back to Tomorrowland for repairs…It must be on the blink, because it transported you to a universe separate from our own…And if you’d informed me I’d spend that day with a gaggle of intellectual property lawyers and digital designers, I would have told you to scrap your time machine altogether. Luckily, I’ve had the privilege of immersing myself in the 3D space as a member of the OITP team, so when I found myself in this exact situation last week, I was confident I hadn’t lost my cosmic bearings.

While I wasn’t bewildered, I certainly was honored. The day consisted of a series of legal, design and technology discussions on the NASA Ames Campus in Mountain View, California. The discussions were sponsored by Creative Commons (CC) – the non-profit that offers standard open licenses for the use and remixing of copyrighted content. They brought together representatives from some very recognizable players in the 3D printing realm: MakerBot, Shapeways, Aleph Objects and the National Institutes of Health 3D Print Exchange, to name a handful.

3D printed statue
From Creative Tools, via Flickr.

In addition to feeling honored, I was just a bit tired. I arrived at the discussions straight from the ALA Annual Conference in Orlando. After tramping about the Orange County Convention Center and its expansive environs for six days, swinging out to The Golden State had me craving a jet-fuel-grade cup of coffee. But I digress.

The principal question at hand over the course of the day: How to create a standard method of author attribution for CC-licensed 3D designs once they’ve been built by a printer. Attributing the CC-licensed design in digital form is relatively straightforward. As Creative Commons staffer Jane Park mentions in a recent blog post, major digital design-sharing platforms allow for design files to be marked with Creative Commons licenses that include source metadata. But once a printer converts a CC-licensed design into physical form, the design’s Creative Commons and source information are lost.

Although it’s technically an open question whether or not clear attribution must be present on physical representations of CC-licensed designs, all but one Creative Commons license – CC0 – includes an attribution requirement. So, Creative Commons and all those supportive of the pro-information-access value on which they were founded, have a vested interest in finding a standard attribution mechanism for 3D printed objects. A standard attribution mechanism of this kind would also help 3D designers track when and how their designs are being used after the print button is pushed.

I wish I could say we found one, but we didn’t get that far. Last week’s discussions were only the beginning of what will surely be a robust and deliberative discourse. Several possible solutions were propounded – e.g., the use of RFID tags or barcodes (à la Thingiverse’s “print tag things”) – but none were explored from all angles. Nonetheless, one thing that gained significant traction was the idea that all of the attribution information that is gained about 3D printed objects moving forward should be indexed in a registry of some kind.

So, mile one of the marathon is in the books. ALA appreciates the opportunity to participate in the attribution discussion for 3D printed objects from the starting line. We – and I personally – would like to thank Creative Commons and Michael Weinberg of Shapeways for organizing and hosting the event. You can read Michael’s thorough overview on the challenge of attribution in 3D printing here. Do you have ideas on how to solve the challenge? Share them in the comments section.

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Charlie Wapner

Charlie Wapner is an information policy analyst for the Washington Office.

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