Makerspace Lawsuits – A TTW Guest Post by Rick Thomchick

Monica Harris, a librarian from Oak Park, Illinois, recently posted a great article to the MakerSpaces and the Participatory Library group on Facebook about 3D printing and intellectual property in which Chris Anderson declared, “we’re going to get sued.”

I wryly replied with a link to a Wired article that the lawsuits had already begun. Michael Weinberg, an attorney with Public Knowledge who was interviewed for the article, characterized 3D printers as a “disruptive technology” that is raising many intellectual property issues, and Monica pointed out that 3D printers have exposed the differences between copyright and patent law.

Physical objects such as figurines, models, or Lego building bricks, are subject to patent law. And unlike copyrights, patents have a limited lifespan (20 years, sometimes more). In fact, Weinberg believes hobbyists should worry more about copying artistic patterns or designs on an object. “That violates copyright law,” claims Weinberg.

Weinberg ominously warned of the risk that Games Workshop and other toy manufacturers would lobby politicians to enact patent “reform” laws similar to SOPA. Which brings us back Chris Anderson’s proclamation of impending litigation against the Maker movement. So what’s to be done? Another member of the Facebook group shared some helpful links including the EFF’s efforts to keep 3D printing open, and a discussion of legal issues (scroll to bottom of page) on makerlibrarian.com (wow, there’s already a website for that!).

It’s not hard to envision yet another incumbent industry fighting the tides of technological change. But I can’t help but think that there is an opportunity for Games Workshop to market their own brand of 3D printers and charge for access to official design patterns, or to partner with MakerBot. Such a move could help them extend their brand, reduce their operational costs (labor, shipping, packaging, etc.) and engage their customers with the thrill of on-demand mass customization. It might sound crazy, but then again, how many libraries were using 3D printers when I first started my MLIS studies in 2009?

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