Legal issues that arise from creating a 3D file by scanning an object

If someone scans an existing object that they didn’t create, do they get a copyright in the file?

No, not from just scanning it.  Copyright protection is not granted for copies of creative works made by someone other than the original works copyright owner, even if those copies took time and skill to produce.  Copyright law only protects original creative works.   This is also true for 2D scanning in the real world. If a person scans a page of a book that doesn’t mean they own the copyright to that page of text.

The same is true for objects that have patented and trademarked elements. Scanning the patented or trademarked objects does not grant the person doing the scanning a patent or trademark rights in the file.

If the creator of an object scans the object they create, would they also own the copyright on the file?

Maybe. It really depends on whether the object they created contains protectable creative expression (protected) or simply functional and useful (not protected).

For objects that contain creative expression (sculptures, artistic engravings, action figures etc) the scan is a copy of the work. One of the rights granted to copyright holders is the exclusive right to copy the work. Although it’s unclear whether this scan would be separately copyrightable is an open question. On one hand scans of copyrighted works that incorporate pictures, written description or stories within the file may be separately copyrightable derivative works (that is a work based on another work). But that copyright would only cover the new additions to the work beyond the scan. However, if the file really is just a scan it’s unlikely to qualify as a derivative work because it really is only a copy of the work.

If a creator scans a useful object like a simple chair, then even if they created the chair they still wouldn’t have a copyright in the file because they are scanning and creating a copy of something that isn’t subject to copyright. In addition the file itself wouldn’t be subject to copyright because it is nothing more than a list of instructions for creating a useful object.

If the object is subject to a patent or trademark, merely scanning the object and creating a file will not create any additional ownership right beyond the pre-existing patent or trademark and copyright, if applicable.

When might scanning an object infringe another persons copyright, patent or trademark?

Copyright: If the entire object to be scanned is copyrighted, then scanning the object and creating a file without permission is a violation of the object creator’s copyright. For example, scanning a sculpture currently protected by copyright law and creating a CAD file based on that would violate the sculptor’s rights under copyright law, which allows them the exclusive right to make copies of their sculpture. Keep in mind that some sculptures may be in the public domain, especially sculptures created before 1923. This helpful table can also be used to help figure out if a sculpture is in the public domain.

If only some of the object to be scanned is copyrightable and the rest is useful, then scanning and creating a file based on the creative and non-useful part of the object without permission violates the object creator’s copyright. However, if you only scan the purely useful parts of the object and create a file based on you scan, there is no copyright infringement. For example, let’s assume the object is a standard bed frame with a headboard in the shape of a roaring lion.  Scanning the frame would not infringe the copyright owners copyright because the frame is useful and not subject to copyright law at all. However, scanning the decorative roaring lion part of the headboard would be copyright infringement because the roaring lion can be separated from the bed frame and stand alone as its own piece of art.

Patent: If the entire object to be scanned is patented simply scanning the object and making a CAD file without permission wouldn’t violate the patent. However, sharing that file or using it to print the patented object would.

If only some of the object is patented, again scanning the patented piece(s) would not by itself be considered patent infringement. However, sharing that file or using it to print the patented object would.

Keep in mind that there are “combination patents” which are made up of several unpatented pieces, but when put together create a patented combination. If you’re interested in scanning useful objects that may be patented, it might be a good idea to talk to a patent attorney.

Trademark: Because trademark law is intended to protect the public from confusion about product origin, trademark law simply doesn’t come into play when items are scanned for purely personal use. A further step – distribution to the public – is required for violation of the trademark. See “3D printing trademark basics.”

If you have any other questions regarding 3D printing and the law please don’t hesitate to contact New Media Rights via our contact form.

3D printing 101

What is 3D printing?

Before we get too far into the law surrounding 3D printing, it’s helpful to know what 3D printing actually is. In many ways, a 3D printer is just like the printer you have at home: it uses a computer file as a blueprint; it uses ink; and it prints in layers to build up a final product. However, unlike your printer at home, it can print three-dimensional objects and use a wide variety of substances and materials for “ink.” What sets 3D printing apart from regular manufacturing is that 3D printing uses a layering process to create the object, as opposed to filing down a block of material.

Admittedly, this is a very cursory introduction to how 3D printing works. For some online sources explaining the mechanics of 3D printing, check out “How 3-D Printing Works” and “How 3D Printers Work”. If you’re in the San Diego area and are really interested in some hands-on time with a 3D printer, check out FABLAB San Diego for opportunities to learn about 3D printing by doing.

How are 3D-printable files created?

Before we talk about who owns a 3D-printable file, it’s helpful to know how exactly 3D printed files are created. Currently, there are two ways to create a 3D-printable file. One way is to use a 3D scanner, and scan an existing object to create a 3D-printable file, much like you would with a 2D scanner. Another way is to create a 3D-printable file on the computer, creating a Computer-Aided Design file (“CAD”). CAD files are 3D drawings typically used as a ‘blueprint’ by architects, engineers, and designers. Currently there are two popular formats for 3D-printable files: CAD and STL. CAD files are easily created, read, and edited by 3D drawing software. STL files have limited editing features, but can be easily read by the 3D printer.

Laws that relate to 3D Printing

There are three overarching types of intellectual property that relate to 3D printing: copyright, patent, and trademark.

Copyright law protects original creative expression such as sculptures, books, movies. But the bar for creative expression is pretty low, even things like a child’s drawing or the design of a website qualify for copyright protection.  Copyright protection is also automatic from the moment of creation; meaning just because something isn’t registered with the copyright office doesn’t mean it is not subject to copyright protection. A more detailed explanation of copyright law can be found near the end of the guide here.

Patent law protects leaps of invention such as new medicines, technologies and sometimes even software. Patent protection is not automatic and involves an expensive and time intensive registration process. A more detailed explanation patent law can be found near the end of the guide here.

Trademark law is a little bit different than copyright or patent law. Instead of protecting creativity or an idea, trademark law is designed to protect consumers. Trademark law provides the right to use a particular name, slogan, or logo in connection with goods or services, and is focused on ensuring consumers can identify the source of a good or service. A more detailed explanation Trademark law can be found near the end of the guide here.

If you have any other questions regarding 3D printing and the law please don’t hesitate to contact New Media Rights via our contact form.

Guide to 3D printing and the law

Remember that scene from “The Fifth Element” when Leeloo is reconstituted using her DNA as a blueprint? Did you ever want your own Replicator from Star Trek? Within the last few years, hype about 3D printing has steadily grown and the stuff of Sci-Fi dreams is closer to becoming a reality. 3D printing has already allowed surgeons to partially reconstruct a person’s face and even print food! We’re not quite all the way to having our own personal Replicator, but rapid advances in 3D printing are bringing us closer every day.

These rapid advances in technology also raise interesting new legal questions.For example:

  • Does the creator of a 3D-printable file always own the file?
  • What can or can’t be done with a 3D-printable file that is owned by someone else?
  • When an object is printed, who owns it?

The goal of this guide is to answer these types of questions as well as introduce you to 3D printing. In the spirit of keeping our answers short and straightforward, we have separated general intellectual property concepts and definitions into their own sections at the end of this guide so readers that want to learn more about any of the legal concepts in this guide can. If you are less familiar with copyright, trademark and patent law you might want to start by reading the sections specifically on these laws first before jumping into the rest of the guide.

Disclaimer: This guide is NOT a substitute for legal advice. A guide like this only serves to provide basic orientation and introduction to the topics discussed.


If you have any other questions regarding 3D printing and the law please don’t hesitate to contact New Media Rights via our contact form.

****Special thanks to New Media Rights Intern Christine Brekke who helped write this guide****

Guide to Intellectual Property & Fiscal Sponsorship Agreements for scientific, research, and archival projects

Our newest guide is designed to help scientific, research, and archival projects understand Intellectual Property and other important considerations when entering a Fiscal Sponsorship relationship.  

Are you an individual, researcher, scientist, small laboratory, or archivist interested in collaborating with a larger non-profit? Then you may need a fiscal sponsorship agreement. A fiscal sponsorship is when a non-profit organization offers their legal and tax-exempt status to an unincorporated project engaged in activities related to the sponsor’s mission.  It typically involves a fee (or percentage of donations) paid by the project to the sponsor in exchange for the sponsor non-profit’s administrative support and any other activites agreed upon and documented in the fiscal sponsorship agreement.

When entering a fiscal sponsorship, most people are primarily concerned with receiving the benefits of a larger supporting organization and being able to accept tax deductible donations.  However, in the rush to get things going, individuals often forget to ask some very important questions and can end up signing away their rights to their research, equipment, and even the name of their project. 

This guide will help you understand and clarify ownership of intellectual property rights when entering a fiscal sponsorship agreement. It will also identify some of the key considerations when entering a fiscal sponsorship agreement as a small lab or research project. 

Internet User's Guide to the Copyright Alert System "Six-strike" policy - FAQ

Just this week, a number of the major internet service providers in the United States, including AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner, began implementing the "Copyright Alert System."

What is the Copyright Alert System?

The system is an anti-piracy approach where your Internet Service Provider allows content partners, typically large media companies (i.e. Motion Picture Association of America [MPAA] and the Recording Industry Association of America [RIAA] ) to police the ISP's networks for copyright infringement. This means they monitor Internet traffic, and when potential copyright infringement is identified, the copyright holder will send your IP address to the ISP and request that the ISP notify you. The ISP will engage in a series of escalating warnings and actions with internet subscribers intended to discourage digital "piracy."

Read our new FAQ to learn more about how the new system will affect you as an Internet user.

Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright law

Everything you ever wanted to know about copyright law but didn’t know to ask

Why should anyone care about copyright law? Even if the only creative work you’ve ever done is upload your profile picture to Facebook, surprise! Your life has been affected by copyright law.

If you’re an artist or journalist who has asked the questions, “How can I get people to see my work?” or “How can I make money off of my work?” it may be helpful to take a look at this guide.

If you’re just an average person who is afraid of getting in trouble for downloading the wrong file, or uploading the wrong video to YouTube, it might also be helpful.

If you’re starting a business and you’re trying to figure out some of the legal issues that may affect your website, marketing materials, and promotional videos and photos, checking out this guide would be a great idea.

What you’ll find below is a plain English summary of U.S. copyright law along with answers to frequently asked questions about the practical ways the law affects your creative work. It’s written in an easy-to read manner, so even people without any legal training won’t have trouble understanding it. That said, we’re always looking for ways to improve it, so if you have suggestions, definitely include them in your comments.

You can read this guide from start to finish like a book, or if you have specific issues, you can consult the table of contents and skip through to the most relevant topics.

Are parents liable for children’s illegal filesharing?

If you’re reading this, you may be a parent who has received a notice that your Internet account has been flagged for alleged illegal filesharing, and your child has admitted to illegally uploading/downloading the music or movie in question. The extent that you as a parent are liable for the “copyright infringement” of your children is still up for legal debate. New Media Rights has created this guide for parents to along with the “Mass Copyright Lawsuit” guide to help you understand what you or your child may be accused of.

Guide for defendants in mass copyright lawsuits (Bit Torrent Filesharing cases)

You may be a defendant, or may know a defendant involved in one of the “BitTorrent filesharing lawsuits.” These suits are also sometimes referred to as “Mass copyright lawsuits” because for the first time, hundreds and sometimes thousands of individuals like yourself have been implicated in lawsuits alleging “copyright infringement.” Indeed, as of September 2011, there are over 200,000 individuals involved in such lawsuits.

New Media Rights has drafted the guide below to provide you with basic, practical information regarding these lawsuits.