A new U.S. Supreme Court decision surrounding copyright laws that could impact the 3D printing industry has come from a seemingly unlikely case. The case, which started gaining attention a couple years ago, had to do with whether cheerleader uniform designs should be copyright protected. And while you might be wondering what the correlation between a cheerleader’s uniform and a 3D printed object might be, many 3D printing companies have been watching the case closely and are now questioning how the recent ruling will affect how 3D prints and designs are subjected to copyright laws.
For a bit of background on the case in question, it started when the world’s leading manufacturer of cheerleading uniforms, Varsity Brands, accused Star Athletica of stealing its copyrighted designs. The accusation led Star Athletica to fight back, saying that the basic stripes and chevrons pattern it used served a utilitarian feature, not an artistic one (the function being that of identifying a cheerleader).
At a local level, the district court agreed with Star Athletica, confirming that the uniforms’ designs were part of its utilitarian function, and could therefore not be copyrighted. Judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals, however, sided with Varsity Brands, saying that stripes or patterns served no utilitarian function for the uniforms. Ultimately, the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which was tasked with determining the difference between “utilitarian content” and copyrightable artistic material. At this point, Stay Athletica got some support from high profile 3D printing companies including Formlabs, Matter and Form, and Shapeways.
From the 3D printing companies’ perspective, the court’s decision could have an impact on how 3D printed designs, which combined artistic features with utilitarian functions, would be subjected to copyright laws. The Supreme Court decision, which was revealed just days ago, establishes how these items should be tested in order to determine how copyright could apply.
Copyright, as many will know, is meant to apply to artistic pieces and expressions, while patents are meant for functional utilitarian objects. From a practical standpoint, if an artwork or creative work is copyrighted, the protection is in place for 70 years after the death of the maker, making the content inaccessible for a long time. In recent years, especially with the rise of 3D printed designs, people have started to wonder where objects that combine both artistic expression and utilitarian functions fall.
U.S. Supreme Court
With the Supreme Court ruling, some new steps are in place to gauge whether an object is copyrightable. They are as follows:
“We hold that a feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature:
(1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article and
(2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated.”
Shapeways, which defined the ruling as a “copyright-first test,” looks at Studiogijs’ 3D printed Birdsnest Egg Cup as an example of how this new test would play out. Using the new test, the egg cup would first be considered for its artistic elements, which would end up comprising the whole object. As Shapeways says on its blog:
“The bird and the branches could all exist as an independent artistic work, even though removing them would leave you with no way to hold your egg. And that’s ok. The test does not care that there might be very little left of the functional parts of the object after you remove those artistic elements. It only cares that the artistic elements can be perceived. Each of those artistic elements are protected by copyright.”
Studiogijs’ 3D printed Birdsnest Egg Cup
At the moment, the ruling is still brand new, so it is a bit difficult to imagine how the new test will actually play out, but by considering the artistic elements of an object first, it seems likely that many more 3D objects and designs will be eligible for copyright, or at least partially eligible for copyright. In a 3D printing context, where designs are shared, remixed, and updated constantly, the decision could be somewhat harmful. As Shapeways sums it up: “If more of those [artistic] elements are protected by copyright, it may be harder to create new things without having to get permission first.”
The case, which has provoked contention and interest for years, has been settled for now, and we’ll just have to wait and see what the ramifications actually are in the world of 3D printing and the maker community.