·  by Charlie Wapner

3-D Printers: Understanding Copyright, Fair Use, and More

Originally Posted On: Uncategorized

Libraries have been on the front lines of the digital revolution since its beginning. 3-D printing is the latest wave of this revolution, which continues to fundamentally change the way we access, process, and produce information. This technology brings digitization to the physical marketplace for the first time, by allowing people of all ages to use digital processes to create tangible items that can be used, traded, bought and sold. It promises progress across numerous industries and sectors. The burgeoning field of “bioprinting”—the printing of human organs—creates new opportunities for medical research; the use of 3-D printing in defense manufacturing enhances U.S. national security by allowing for the more efficient production and delivery of intricate items used by the military; and the successful deployment of 3-D printing technology to outer space heralds a day when thousands of miles and a lack of gravity no longer constrain the delivery of supplies to astronauts.

What does all of this have to do with school librarianship?

None of these exciting applications can continue to advance without new generations of people to advance them. Enter the school librarian. The school library community has always been known for connecting students of all ages to transformative information technologies. In keeping with this role and reputation, school librarians must now ensure that today’s students gain the skills they need to bring the full promise of 3-D printing technology to fruition. By fulfilling this role, the school library community will move us all toward a brighter future—and will position itself at the forefront of the emerging 3-D printing policy arena.


School librarians have already begun to integrate 3-D printing into the learning process. Across the country, they are proving that, added to the vast arsenal of learning tools in their institutions, a 3-D printer can serve as a powerful weapon for hands-on instruction across multiple disciplines.

A couple of examples from the sciences: In Georgia, under the leadership of SLJ School Librarian of the Year Finalist Andy Plemmons, third graders at the David C. Barrow Elementary School used the library’s 3-D printer to build their own jewelry as part of a geologic lesson on rocks and minerals. In Wisconsin, a senior at the West De Pere High School used his library’s 3-D printer to create multicolor globes that brought geography to life.


3-D printers in school libraries are also being used to broaden students’ cultural horizons and teach practical problem-solving skills. In Iowa, fifth graders at the Van Meter Elementary School used their library’s 3-D printer to create their own Olympic symbols as part of a research project on the Olympic Games; and in Illinois, students at Glen Grove Elementary School used 3D printing technology in their library to design and build models of devices that could solve problems facing residents of an imaginary city—issues related to excessive noise, water pollution, and more.

Additionally, students are learning cutting-edge digital skills through 3-D printing technology in school libraries. In Florida, fifth graders at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy became versed in computer aided design software by developing 3-D models of luggage tags in the school library.

The takeoff of 3-D printing in school libraries inspires hope for our digital future. To ensure this trend continues, it is important to address a few questions that librarians raise upon establishing a cutting-edge technology as a library service: “If my patron does ‘x’ with the technology, could I or the patron face legal consequences?” The school librarian’s typical query: “If a student builds ‘x’ with the printer, could the student or I be sued?”

SLJ1505-Copyright-Symbols2Click to enlarge

Unease about the prospect of subjecting yourself, your institution, or your students to legal risks is certainly understandable, given the limitless creative capacity of 3-D printers and the prevailing attitude among younger generations that the sharing and reproduction of content should be seamless. However, as the historic on-ramp to the digital world, the library community must not be intimidated by the legal considerations of any new digital technology. In fact, library professionals have every reason to be optimistic about this undertaking. If we devise—and share—acceptable use policies that take the legal implications of 3-D printing into account, we can move the library community toward a set of best practices that guides the direction of the public policy frameworks that coalesce around the use of 3-D printers in the coming years.

Without question, exploring new frontiers in the intellectual property (IP) space must be a part of any effort to establish best practices for providing 3-D printing as a library service. Historically, the library community’s IP focus has not extended much beyond copyright. Copyright is still important in the context of 3-D printing, as the devices can be used to create works of authorship like sculptures and figurines, and the computer-aided design (CAD) files from which objects are printed may also be protected by copyright.

However, 3-D printing must also get librarians to think about other IP concepts. In addition to producing creative works, the devices can fashion a wide gamut of “functional” items, which may be protected by patent.

Patents come in two varieties—utility and design. A utility patent may cover a machine, article of manufacture, a composition of matter, or method or process. A design patent covers the ornamental and aesthetic shape of a manufactured item as opposed to its utilitarian function. An example to illustrate the difference: A company might hold a utility patent covering a method of printing a pair of sunglasses and also hold a design patent on the shape and design of the sunglasses.


An important point of clarification is the difference between patent and copyright. Unlike copyright, which protects items that represent the original expression of an idea, patent protects original items that serve a particular useful purpose. A new type of prosthetic hand that facilitates the ease with which an amputee can perform daily tasks may be eligible for patent protection. Similarly, a new kitchen item that can help you cook breakfast more efficiently may also be eligible. Two other concepts implicated by 3-D printing are trade dress, which protects distinctive product designs and packaging, as well as trade secret, which protects formulas, practices, processes, designs, instruments, patterns or compilations of information that derive economic value from not being widely known.

If that high-level overview of IP law has you ready to consign your Makerbot to the scrap heap, consider the following proposition. 3-D printing activity in libraries has steered clear of litigation so far, and the most important thing we librarians can do to ensure this stays the case is remain true to our established practices and values. Libraries have a rich history of serving as points of access to digital technology, and of providing people—especially students—with the skills they need to use digital technologies to bring ideas from conception to execution.

At the same time, library professionals have never made a practice of actively encouraging patrons to use the technologies we provide for infringing purposes. As long as we keep with this role and arm ourselves with the knowledge we need to develop acceptable use policies that take the legal concepts implicated by 3-D printing into account, we can minimize our own legal risks and those of our patrons—providing students with knowledge they will need to be successful in the digital age.

If you’re still feeling gun-shy, consider this: The reproduction and/or distribution of an item protected by IP law generally only becomes an issue if it has some discernible effect on the market for that item. So, if despite all of the precautions you take to ensure the use of your printer does not result in infringement, a student prints an action figure that’s protected by copyright, neither you, nor the student is inexorably headed for a legal battle. There’s a high probability that the student is simply going to take it home and place it on his or her bedside table—and such a personal, non-commercial use is not likely to draw the ire, or frankly, even the attention of a rights holder.

The bottom line is that in making 3-D printers available, school—and all—librarians should be smart, but fearless. In the 1990s, when digitization began to transform the music and book industries, rights holders worked with considerable success to set the tone and boundaries of public policy debates over digital content. As a result, the library community was dragooned into overly cautious practices related to the dissemination and reproduction of information. Now, thanks to 3D printing, digitization has—as many scholars suggest—begun to transform the physical economy in a similar way. As 3-D printing leaders, the library community can and should get out ahead of rights holders this time around; with a commitment to studying new areas of IP law, we can set the direction of 3-D printing policy in the coming years.

Wapner-Charles_Contrib_WebCharlie Wapner works on intellectual property, digital content and broadband issues as an information policy analyst in the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy.