The call for a harmonized “Community” License for 3D Content – Part I

It doesn’t matter whether you believe that the current boundaries of intellectual property protection do not go far enough to protect the rights of content creators or if you believe that copyrights, patents and other forms of intellectual property protection have been stretched well beyond their intended scope – the conclusion still remains – “Houston, we have a problem.”

You might believe that this is an area that has already been entirely thought through – in particular because of the very popular use of the Google 3D Warehouse.   For those of you who may not be aware, Google launched the 3D Warehouse in the 2006 timeframe as a repository for content generated by their Google SketchUp product (which they had just recently acquired from the folks @Last).  It’s my belief that they did this as a natural way to generate and populate content to their Google Earth service (because models created in Google SketchUp can be easily geo-located within Google Earth).

But, You would be wrong if you thought there was uniformity.

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Services in the ‘capture-create, modify, make’ ecosystem which host, and/or produce physical deliverables, deal with the thorny issue of intellectual property in two main ways.  Some place the burden entirely on the content contributor (e.g. the person who uploads the model).  Others have a framework leveraging various flavors of the existing Creative Commons licensing scheme (www.creativecommons.org).   For the reasons that I will outline below, I believe both of these approaches are flawed – despite best intentions – and what we really need to move to is a harmonized “Community” style license addressing all branches of IP, from copyright, to patent, to moral rights and beyond.

A (Little) Background

These issues are not new.  While “new” in the context of the ‘capture-create, modify, make’ ecosystem, the question of how to appropriately share, attribute and re-use content has been around for a while and various ideas and themes have been developed.  Ideas and implementations run the spectrum from expressly granting works and ideas to the “public domain” (i.e. so the original author or inventor has no further downstream ability to control access or usage) to schemes that keep the title to any underlying work or invention with the original IP rights holder but which authorize a limited or expansive set of downstream rights.

Most of the previous efforts, however, have focused exclusively on copyright concepts.  This should not be surprising, because many of these initiatives sprang out of the software industry, and at the time (in late 1970s and 1980s) no one would have really thought that patent law could have been extended to cover software inventions.

Concepts (and there are more) include:

  • Grant to the Public Domain – An individual can expressly release all IP rights in a work, invention or other creation.  Normally this relates to the release of copyright.  Once done, however, that individual cannot restrict how those materials can be used, modified, or re-distributed, in the future.   As a result, copyleft concepts have been developing over time.
  • Copyleft  — This is a concept which allows for copyrighted works (software, photographs, other creative works) to be modified and freely distributed so long as the downstream work carries the same permissions.  Software copyleft licenses require that downstream recipients receive everything necessary to modify and compile the work.  Copyleft licenses, however, come in various “’strengths” depending on how many rights are extended (or restricted) to the downstream users.  The General Public License (GPL) is the most well known implementation of copyleft concepts, the Creative Commons License (CCL) (with its “Share Alike” license type) is also frequently used.
  • GNU General Public License (or “GPL”) —  This license was originally written by the GNU Project in order to support he re-distribution of the free GNU Unix-like operating system which the project created.  The GPL is perhaps the most well known “copyleft” license.  The Free Software Foundation sponsors the GNU project.  For more generalized background on the GPL, see: http://www.gnu.org/licenses/ andhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU_General_Public_License.
  • Creative Commons License (or “CCL”) – this was created by the Creative Commons organization in the 2001/2002 timeframe.  These licenses cover works protected by copyright law, but are generally not recommended for use with software.  CCL’s are frequently used with photos and papers.  The organization is currently working on the 4.0 release of these licenses.  The photo sharing and tagging site Flickr, as an example, incorporates CCL license types into its service.  For more generalized background on the CCL types, see: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/ andhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_Commons_licenses.

The challenge with the above is that these IP schemes are not broad enough to cover the range of potential IP rights associated with 3D models and objects which have been created, captured, modified and made.  Past approaches have been focused on creative, as opposed to functional, works.  Use cases in the 3D printing ecosystem stretch the limitations of these prior initiatives – requiring that new solutions be developed.

This blog was originally published on March 12th, 2012.

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