All posts by TomKurke

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 (   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: and
  • 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: and

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.

Proto Labs Sets Range for IPO – Manufacturing is Exciting

Yesterday [this blog was originally published on February 14th, 2002], our friends at Proto Labs, Inc. set the range for their IPO shares at between $13 – $15, and hope to raise between $56M – $65M based on selling 4.3M shares.  Assuming the mid-point of this range, they would have valuation of roughly $325M (or roughly 3.3x TTMR).  They have applied to be listed on the NYSE under the ticker symbol “PRLB”.

North Bridge (Growth Equity I, L.P) a significant investor and Board member has also indicated an interest to purchase additional shares at the IPO price.  Protomold has grown their revenues from $43.8M in 2009 to $98.9M in 2011, while remaining profitable throughout the period.   They have a substantial return customer rate, where repeat orders from existing customers have historically been around 80% of their revenues.  A majority of their revenues come from the US (74%) with the remainder coming from fifty other countries.  Proto Labs employs more than 500 people worldwide.

For those interested in learning more about their business details, you can find them in their recently amended S-1, which can be found here:

Obviously, it is exciting news to see an American manufacturing company poised to go public.  Manufacturing most certainly is “sexy” and “investible” at the same time.  Geomagic is proud to be one player in the digital ecosystem that helps to capture/modify and make items — but at the end of the day you cannot work in a digital chair, write on a virtual table or drive home in a VR car.  It is also exciting to see a company that is about to go public highlighting the value chain and opportunities around mass-customization.

Protomold, as the name implies, concentrates on the rapid prototyping market — with a complete and fast solution from design to either CNC milling or injection molding, supporting various material types.  Proto Mold, in their S-1, describes their business as: “We are leading online and technology-enabled quick-turn manufacturer of custom parts for prototyping and short-run production. We provide “Real Parts, Really Fast” to product developers worldwide, who are under increasing pressure to bring their finished products to market faster than their competition”.

A image in the Protomold S-1 illustrates their production processes very well:


This blog was originally published on February 14th, 2012.

The Tale of Two Spoons and Copyright Law

Let’s take two spoons. One spoon is a simple, yet elegant, functional, well, spoon.  It does spoon like things very well.  The other spoon is well, also a spoon, but it has patterned and ornate handle.  Can either 3D object be protected by copyright?

Copyright Law

Copyright protection in the United States is built around the U.S. Copyright Act and common law interpreting those statutes – but all stemming from the “grant” given to the Federal government found in Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution which states:

To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries. 

A lot has changed since the Founding Fathers penned these words, and the scope of protection of what is protectable by copyright have expanded as well (well beyond a “writing”).

Copyright protection can be extended to “works of authorship” that are:

  • Original – The standard here is very low, but labor and effort is not a substitute for originality.

  • Not utilitarian – Copyright does not protect parts of a work that are purely mechanical or functional.

  • Fixed in a tangible medium – Copyright protection does not attach to a work that someone has been thinking about but which has not yet been physically represented.

  • The “idea-expression dichotomy” – The expression of an idea (or procedure, process, system, discovery, etc.) but not the idea itself is protectable by copyright.  As result, if two people were to independently create a work, without access to the other, neither is infringing.

By statute a copyright holder has certain “exclusive” rights, namely the ability to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, license and create derivative works (e.g. adaptations) based on the original work.  A copyright is infringed when someone violates one or more of the exclusive rights granted to a copyright holder unless they a defense to infringement (such as “fair use” – limited in scope to non-commercial activities like criticism, use in education, etc.).

As I mentioned above, over time, the scope and duration of copyright protection has constantly expanded.  Some of those changes may certainly be characterized as legitimately driven by the need for the law to keep up with the changing pace of technology.  I’m not so sure about many other changes however.  Two hundred years ago, copyright protection was for a maximum of fourteen years, today copyright protection can extend to the life of the author plus seventy years (works made for hire are ninety-five years from first publication!).

What is protectable by copyright has also morphed – from traditional writings (e.g. books, papers, plays, etc.)  to software, and other creative works like sculptures, photographs, drawings, and in some cases even graphic designs, and buildings.

The exact scope of what is protected under copyright varies from country to country –with slight variations in scope – but many of those have been minimized over the past years because of various harmonization conventions (e.g. the Berne Convention).

Back to our Spoons

Remember our two spoons.  Both are perfectly good, functional spoons.

It would seem that because a spoon is the essence of something functional or utilitarian – it would not be protectable by copyright.

Unfortunately, however, the analysis is not that simple – because “useful” objects can have both copyrightable and uncopyrightable features.  As Fact Sheet Number 103 published by the United States Copyright explains (see:

A “useful article” is an object that has an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information. Examples are clothing; automobile bodies; furniture; machinery, including household appliances; dinnerware; and lighting fixtures. An article that is part of a useful article, such as an ornamental wheel cover on a vehicle, can itself be a useful article.

Copyright does not protect the mechanical or utilitarian aspects of such works of craftsmanship. Copyright may, however, protect any pictorial, graphic, or sculptural authorship that can be identified separately from the utilitarian aspects of an object. Thus a useful article can have both copyrightable and uncopyrightable features. For example, a carving on the back of a chair or a floral relief design on silver flatware can be protected by copyright, but the design of the chair or the flatware itself cannot, even though it may be aesthetically pleasing.

Copyright in a work that portrays a useful article extends only to the artistic expression of the author of the pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work. It does not extend to the design of the article that is portrayed. For example, a drawing or photograph of an automobile or a dress design can be copyrighted, but that does not give the artist or photographer the exclusive right to make automobiles or dresses of the same design.

Uh oh.  So, it turns out that at least some aspects of one of the spoons might be copyrightable.

Why does this matter?  Because if you were to create a digital copy of the patterned spoon (e.g. capturing via a laser scanner, using photogrammetry, etc.) and then print it on a 3D printer as part of the Capture/Modify/Make ecosystem – you might be unwittingly committing copyright infringement.

In my next blog post I will walk you through additional examples of where and to what copyright protection might apply.

The following are useful sources of information to gain a deeper understanding of Copyright law in the United States:

This blog was originally published on February 20th, 2012.

The Storm Clouds on the Horizon

Can you see them from where you are?  If you can’t see them yet, you certainly will.

We have two incredibly interesting mega trends which are currently impacting the technology space that my company, Geomagic plays in.  Both involve the democratization of technology – moving from limited, high cost, low volume markets to further up the technology adoption curve.

On the one hand we have an explosion of low cost reality capture devices, from the consumer space (like the Microsoft® Kinect) into the medium range terrestrial laser scanning space (with the industry-shifting Faro FOCUS 3D scanner).    On the other hand we have the explosion of consumer and “value” oriented additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, devices – like those offered by 3D Systems (with their new Cubify hardware offering), Makerbot Industries and others. In the middle are several data transformation, transmission and other value added services to get the captured 3D content out to a printer (like Thingiverse, Ponoko, iMaterialise, Google Warehouse, Shapeways and Cubify).   I refer to this space as the “Capture, Modify, Make” Ecosystem.

Gartner Research publishes a series of “Hype Cycle” charts which illustrate where (in their opinion) various technologies and technology trends are, in the adoption cycle.  Technology, in their vernacular, goes from a Technology Trigger, through the Peak of Inflated Expectations, only to slide through the Trough of Disillusionment, to the Slope of Enlightenment, ending at the Plateau of Productivity.  For more context here, this book on “Mastering the Hype Cycle” is useful context –

In June of 2011 Gartner evaluated 1900 different technologies, and concluded that 3D printing was cresting into the Peak of Inflated Expectations. (To see this very informative chart, visit:

Regardless of where or whether you believe that 3D printing is going to be “next big thing” and truly transformational with in-home 3D printing or “merely” limited to industrial production processes (even if, for example, as part of a service that allows for mass customization and drop shipment to your house) there are significant intellectual property issues that cut across the entire ecosystem.

Simply put, our existing laws (both statutory and common) will need to be stretched (in good and bad ways) to cover data capture, transformation and production.  In many ways I believe we are entering into the next “Napster” era – where the legitimate rights of various stakeholders need to be balanced.

If you are thinking – “I don’t see this at all” consider the story last week which broke that Pirate Bay, one of the largest file sharing networks in the world has created a new category of shareable assets called “Physibles” in which users can trade models capable of being printed on 3D printers.

Of course services that allow for the distribution and remote printing of 3D content as STL files is not new by any measure (many of the services noted above facilitate this already).  What most certainly is new is that a known site which facilitates piracy is promoting it.  In their blog post titled “Evolution: New Category” (see: TPB blogs that:

We believe that the next step in copying will be made from digital form into physical form. It will be physical objects. Or as we decided to call them: Physibles. Data objects that are able (and feasible) to become physical. We believe that things like three dimensional printers, scanners and such are just the first step. We believe that in the nearby future you will print your spare sparts for your vehicles. You will download your sneakers within 20 years.

The benefit to society is huge. No more shipping huge amount of products around the world. No more shipping the broken products back. No more child labour. We’ll be able to print food for hungry people. We’ll be able to share not only a recipe, but the full meal. We’ll be able to actually copy that floppy, if we needed one.

We believe that the future of sharing is about physible data. We’re thinking of temporarily renaming ourselves to The Product Bay – but we had no graphical artist around to make a logo. In the future, we’ll download one.

For more on Pirate Bay (also referred to as “TPB”) see:  I also encourage you to read the recent story on The Daily at: (“Genuine Fakes – With the rise of 3D printers, new questions of piracy loom”

I know I see the storm clouds coming, and they are blowing right behind The Pirate Bay ship. . .

In this blog I will cover various topics that impact our industry. In the coming weeks and months I will walk through a primer on intellectual property law and how it intersects with the exciting Capture, Modify, Make ecosystem.  If you have suggestions or criticisms, please reach out to me – I look hearing from you.

 This blog was originally published on February 2, 2012.

A Quick Education in Intellectual Property (IP)

So, what exactly is intellectual property?  No, it isn’t a fancy phrase created by lawyers just to confuse.  Really.  I promise.  Being a reformed lawyer myself (I got better) I can say that with some authority.

In summary, intellectual property is a blanket term often used to cover and unify a broad range of rights associated with intangible (i.e. things that aren’t physical) assets. Intellectual property rights empower the holder to exclusively “do” something (or prevent others from doing so).  While the scope varies from country to country, at a high level most would consider that copyright, trademark, trade secret, industrial design, patent, and moral rights fall into the definition of intellectual property…

Some criticize using intellectual property as a defining term unto itself because it aggregates together various rights which spawned from divergent backgrounds, protecting different things, and with distinct policy implications.  There is also certainly some debate that the phrase itself was intended to, and does in fact, confuse issues – so that it is easier to apply different rules to physical objects versus intangible rights.  There is further criticism that the scope of intellectual property protection (of all types) has continued to expand over time – well beyond what was originally intended — e.g. copyright protection of ever increasing duration and patents of dubious validity.  I do not necessarily intend to cover the various policy debates surrounding the generic term of intellectual property beyond acknowledging that they in fact exist.

Your mileage will vary across countries (each treating areas slightly differently) as to the specific scope of rights and corresponding protection offered to intellectual property rights holders.  Laws (both statutory and those created by judges – so called “common law”) attempt to balance intellectual property protection (facilitating research, etc.) versus killing innovation.  A great summary on the definition and historical use of intellectual property can be found at Wikipedia:

Even though published in 1997, MIT Professor Lester Thurow’s paper titled Needed: A New System of Intellectual Property is still incredibly timely and instructive.  Professor Thurow made compelling arguments for why the world’s current system of intellectual property rights will only become more and more ineffective as new technologies continue to be developed and ultimately must be re-created from the ground up.

In a world before the iPhone, and iStore and now an iCloud, as well as the “new” Capture/Modify/Make ecosystem, Professor Thurow foreshadowed:

Fundamental shifts in technology and in the economic landscape are rapidly making the current system of intellectual property rights unworkable and ineffective.  Designed more than 100 years ago to meet the simpler needs of an industrial era, it is an undifferentiated, one-size-fits-all system.  Although treating all advances in knowledge in the same way may have worked when most patents were granted for new mechanical devices, today’s brainpower industries pose challenges that are far more complex.

. . .

New technologies make enforcement of property rights much tougher. People can use high-quality scanning technologies with optical character recognition to build electronic libraries quickly and easily. Electronic publishers can in turn just as quickly and easily convert that material back into printed form. When anything can be rapidly, cheaply and privately replicated in low volumes at high levels of quality and then distributed in whatever form the user wants, the choke points available to prevent reproduction of what used to be printed materials have essentially evaporated.

. . .

The legal system may be able to stop factories from copying and selling CDs or books in volume, but it cannot stop individuals from replicating the materials for themselves or selling small numbers to their friends.

The parallels to where we are today are very clear.

There is little doubt in my mind that our current system of intellectual property protection has been stretched well beyond the breaking point, and the changes in the Capture/Modify/Make ecosystem discussed in my earlier post (technology democratization on the input and output sides) will only accelerate and highlight intellectual property issues.

In my next entries I will cover the current scope of copyright protection and how it generally applies in the Capture/Modify/Make ecosystem.

This blog was originally published on February 8th, 2012.