The Maker Movement has resulted in a large number of people creating things, but also sharing them. The avenues through which they share are open, which is the point of contemporary making. Unfortunately, this openness also means that designs and objects that are published under Creative Commons licenses are being targeted by profit-seeking firms. Patent theft is one of the most significant challenges facing new media scholars. We already live and work in a copyright landscape riddled with trolls. These actors work to devalue the work of individual content creators while maximizing their own profits, and I believe that trolls are only the first wave of a new, corrupt generation of actors bent on taking what isn’t theirs.
It is increasingly common practice for makers to upload digital plans for things they have created. One of the most popular online repositories for user-created designs is Thingiverse. This service allows users to upload designs and assign them a Creative Commons license. In 2016, several Thingiverse users discovered that their designs (uploaded under a variety of Creative Commons licenses) had been mass downloaded and subsequently offered for sale by an eBay seller called “just3dprint.” This eBay seller was offering printed versions of the custom designs for a charge (Grunewald par. 2). Several users contacted the firm and asked that their designs be taken town, but they received a message from the seller arguing that these practices are perfectly legal and beneficial to the artists (Grunewald par. 4-5). Though taking a user design and with a CC- Non-commercial and using it for commercial purposes is clearly wrong, this didn’t stop the eBay seller.
As we encourage more people to participate in the digital economy, we will also need to simultaneously educate participants on the kinds of problems they can reasonably expect to arise when presenting work to a variety of publics. Currently, there are no criminal penalties or required jail time for patent infringement, which creates an obvious incentive for patent trolls and large firms to take whatever looks profitable. What makes the example above even more complicated is that many of the designs that were taken from Thingiverse did not feature any kind of Creative Commons license. The actions of the eBay seller were ethically dubious, but perhaps not in all cases.
Academics working in intellectual property studies have long praised the Commons as a solution to many problems with IP law, but the Commons doesn’t do much to protect individual creators, unfortunately. It’s incredibly easy to lift a CAD design and bring it to a different platform, and, commonly, a multi-national platform with no clear jurisdiction. Researchers and content creators working with new media will need to remain vigilant and engaged in order to help shape the future of IP. If this example teaches us anything, it is that current intellectual property laws are being further eroded at fast rate. One important way of combatting patent theft involves establishing prior art, which entails publicly documenting creations. Writing about our intellectual property (and training students to do the same) can help us protect the things we make from appropriation.
Grunewald, Scott. “When eBay Sellers Try to Defend Their Illegal Sale of 3D Models from Thingiverse, Comedy Ensues.” 3DPrint.com, 20 Feb. 2016.