Ask Hackaday: Selling CAD Prints That Are Not Yours

[Louise] tried out her new E3D Cyclops dual extrusion system by printing a superb model dragon. The piece was sculpted in Blender, stands 13cm tall and can be made without supports. It’s an impressive piece of artwork that reflects the maker’s skill, dedication and hard work. She shared her creation on the popular Thingiverse website which allows others to download the file for use on their own 3D printer. You can imagine her surprise when she stumbled upon her work being sold on eBay.

It turns out that the owner of the eBay store is not just selling [Louise]’s work, he’s selling thousands of other models taken from the Thingiverse site. This sketchy and highly unethical business model has not gone unnoticed, and several people have launched complaints to both Thingiverse and eBay. Now, there are lots of things to talk about here, but the 800 pound high voltage transformer in the room is the legality of the whole thing. What he’s doing might be unethical, but is it illegal?

When [Louise] politely asked the eBay store owner to remove her work, he responded with:

“When you uploaded your items onto Thingiverse for mass distribution, you lost all rights to them whatsoever. They entered what is known in the legal world as “public domain”. The single exception to public domain rules are original works of art. No court in the USA has yet ruled a CAD model an original work or art.”

Most of the uploaded CAD models on Thingiverse are done under the Creative Commons license, which is pretty clear in its assertion that anyone can profit from the work. This would seem to put the eBay store owner in the clear for selling the work, but it should be noted that he’s not properly attributing the work to the original creator. There are other derivatives of the license, some of which prohibit commercial use of the work. In these cases, the eBay store owner would seem to be involved in an obvious violation of the license.

There are also questions stirring with his use of images.  He’s not taking the CAD model and making his own prints for images. He lifting the images of the prints from the Thingiverse site along with the CAD files. It’s a literal copy/paste business model.

With that said,  the eBay store owner makes a fairly solid argument in the comments section of the post that broke the news. Search for the poster named “JPL” and the giant brick of text to read it. He argues that the Thingiverse non-commercial license is just lip service and has no legal authority. One example of this is how they often provide links to companies that will print a CAD design on the same page of a design that’s marked as non-commercial. He sums up one of many good points with the quote below:

“While we could list several other ways Thingiverse makes (money), any creator should get the picture by now-Thingiverse exists to make Stratasys (money) off of creators’ designs in direct violation of its very own “non-commercial” license. If a creator is OK with a billion-dollar Israeli company monetizing his/her designs, but hates on a Philly startup trying to make ends-meet, then they have a very strange position indeed.”

OK Hackaday readers, you have heard both sides of the issue. Here’s the question(s):

1.  Is the eBay seller involved in illegal activity?

2. Can he change his approach to stay within the limits of the license? For instance, what if he credits the                      original maker on the sale page?

3. How would you feel if you found your CAD file for sale on his eBay store?

239 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: Selling CAD Prints That Are Not Yours

  1. Legally, he’s in the clear, no question. Is he being immoral? that’s tougher. When I first read the article, I thought he was just selling the plans on ebay, then I read the listing. He’s printing the objects and selling them, that’s a service, he’s using equipment he purchased and maintains and prints what people want. scope this out:

    you go to thingiverse and and find a pattern YOU want printed, YOU search for someone to print the design, YOU pay them for their service.

    Is that the same thing? money is changing hands, the object gets printed, and the original designer still gets no credit. That’s probably how this got started to begin with. Should the designer of the pattern get credit? yes, without question. But the knowledge that her work is good enough to be made physical and sold on ebay, PROPS to her! If it were me, I would change the name of the file to reflect my brand name and insist that the any use of the pattern keeps the brand name in the title. That way, you have people going to your website and requesting patterns, then you can sell your services for creating them.

  2. If this is illegal, then so is printing a CC-NC photo at wallmart / tesco, as they’re commercial (I don’t *think* that’s illegal, but I’d not be surprised to find it is). I don’t think who made the first move (offering the print on eBay vs. taking a file to wallmart) matters, it’s the act of profiting from the CC-NC artwork.
    In any case, NC is not directly linked to making a profit; NC also prevents you using something to advertise your services, etc. regardless of whether money is involved. (so if the photo of the model is NC, that’s probably illegal). Steer away from NC unless it’s purely for personal use.
    I think charging to print the model is probably legal, as is making the offer to print it; however, using the photo probably isn’t. Using the model in a commercial way (e.g. selling it in 3 years time when you have a clear-out at home, using it in an advert, or as decoration in a restaurant, etc.) isn’t legal, if the CC-NC licence propagates to the print.
    But this is the problem with viral licences like CC & GPL; they infect items and anything they touch. Avoid them, please, and release under MIT or similar.

    1. Unless of course that’s what you intend. Y’know like the creator of this probably did. Don’t like the license, feel free to renegotiate with the copyright owner or rejected the terms and walk away from the work being licensed. It’s as easy as that.

      1. Yes, it is as easy as that. I do walk away from GPL and CC code / assets, frequently, when the licence isn’t suitable for a project. Whereas I think a lot of developers happily use them and don’t keep to the rules. Being passive-aggressive to those who are trying to keep to the rules isn’t helpful to the cause.

        Negotiating with the copyright owner is often not quick to do, and would be too much time for the copyright holder for what would be a small sale (e.g. the designer of the CAD model here might only get a few $ per model sold as a fair price; for a one-off sale, it’s not worth her time working out a new licence). Dual licensing is a good option (e.g. CC-BY-NC or commercial attribution for $xx), but there’s not any standard setups like that I’ve seen.

        I probably avoid viral licences more often than I need to, but the vagueness of how the licence spreads is unclear in many cases, as e.g. GPL was designed in the days of compiled binaries, not JIT compiled scripts, or SVGs / fonts, etc. It’s not really clear in a lot of cases, e.g. Does a GPL font infect a PDF it’s used in? How does it work with apache? AFAIK there’s been many claimed answers, but there’s never been a clear answer in a court of law. This is why we have better licences for specific purposes e.g. like SIL which is explicitly designed for fonts, and various stock-photo licences. Also, “Non-Commercial” isn’t clearly defined, and would likely be down to the discretion of a court.

        I’m appealing to people to consider carefully the licence they use, as I think a lot of people using viral licences don’t realise the viral nature of them. I personally feel that, while GPL may be a suitable choice for an application, it is probably a poor choice for library code, which is likely to only be a very small contribution to a larger project.

        I suspect many people really want a licence that says “little people can use this free, but commercial giants should pay”. In many cases GPL *won’t* prevent big corps from using from your code for free, without releasing anything of value – I worked at a big “patent-nazi” company, and we frequently made great use of GPL code, for things which were never released externally, or where source code was no value (e.g. no use without data). We really should have paid something to use those libraries; it would have been the decent thing to do, and I suspect many of the authors _didn’t_ intend us to benefit from their work in that way.
        For an interesting example, see the licence for BlamBot’s free comic-book fonts; it allows commercial use by indie studios, but prohibits major studios from using them for free. That’s a carefully crafted licence which does what many people probably intend to do: may the ‘big guys’ pay.

        I feel these licences also like to portray themselves as ‘free’ and ‘open’ when they’re actually very restrictive compared to e.g. MIT.

        So, all I’m saying, is please consider what you’re trying to achieve with your licence, and see if your licence choice actually achieves that.

  3. personally, If I would put my model up somewhere for everyone to see and use. I would be proud, if someone would use my design. It would be nice if I was mentioned in the process.
    I would add my contacts at the bottom of the design – if they are lazy enough, the details stay there, and when someone looks at the printout, they’ll get my contacts not the printer’s
    It is similar to patents. If you don’t want someone to use your design, keep it to yourself.

  4. only in Murrica, where the people care more about property rights over human rights…

    so many comments on this post yet we fail to see that this is just a product of the system we are all being forced to live under.

    all licenses are nothing more than a way to hold on to something which does nothing but to stifle innovation.

    Like has been said before, if you don’t want someone to misuse your ideas, don’t put them out there. Sure there might be a whole lot of laws out there to protect your ideas, but how are you going to enforce them? you cant unless you already have a dump truck full of cash your going to deliver to a lawyers office.

    Maybe if people focused on creating new ideas instead of holding on to the old ones for the purpose of monopolization, we might be able to move in to the next technological age.

    All of the models i put on the internet i expect to be copied and used and ripped off, Its the freaking internet everything is copied and duplicated. as a society we really REALLY need to get past this idea that we need these islands of control. Maybe im too much of a idealist but really I’m more excited about thinking about new things rather than fighting to make sure no one is doing the same things as me.

    1. I could agree with you Mike, but here is the problem. When someone produces anything, from a piece of code to a revolutionary power plant, that product is his/her property. They created it, they own it. Now there are two potential actions after this, share it or not share it. If he doesn’t share it, he has not contributed anything to humanity in general, he has just created something for his own needs/pleasure and the story ends. The second option is to share it. In most cases we ask to be compensated for our production, we share it for a price. There is nothing wrong with this approach. I don’t work for free and I suspect that you don’t either. In some cases we share it in exchange of a thank you or for or own pleasure. In all cases the creator of the work has absolute control of how his property is shared.
      In this particular case Louise chose to share her work with the world for free. She only asks that you provide attribution, meaning that you recognize her effort by not claiming the work is yours and that you do not seek a profit from her efforts. That is the price she has placed on her work. The scumbag eBay seller trolled thingiverse, copied and pasted photos of the projects there and offered the art for sale. He specifically copied a thingiverse image of HER work and offered it for sale without paying for it (payment been obeying the licensing agreement). He stole her work and tried to (or did) make a profit out of stolen goods.
      And I do understand your point. You have accepted that if you publish anything online the work is subject to theft. OK, that is your decision. The point of sites like thingiverse is to provide you with more control of your work than if you were just to post it on Fakebook. You choose to share your production with the world without demanding currency. If we accept that anything we produce and share online will be stolen, we might as well stop sharing anything on line. Beyond this, if we can not post our work on line, we might as well give up on this whole fad of 3D printing since there is no point. You see, not everyone is creative, but everyone will eventually have a 3D printer. If those who are creative can not control how their creations are used once posted no creative person would ever share their work. No one would by a 3D printer if they have nothing new, other than a few corporate owned doodads, to print. The 3D printer world needs the creative minds to share their creations.

  5. Point the finger at people who don’t read licenses..

    Funny Thing: Most people who are critical of this are from countries that have killed millions and overthrown governments with discontent and force, to protect capitalism..

  6. I’m not trying to be a turd here. But…
    If someone can just download it, and print it, wouldn’t it be a stupid thing to do if she wanted attribution?
    Meanwhile, there are kids starving in Africa.

  7. It’s things like this that make me uncomfortable creating works and distributing them under any sort of “open source” license, such as Creative Commons. If I make something, I want to profit from it – either monetarily or through attribution. Especially if I put a lot of work into it.

    1. Put your name on it and your email address. Just copying your stuff is one thing, going out of their way to conceal that you are the creator (by removing your name) makes them fair game for payback, legal, social, or whatever.

  8. Well welcome to the “open source” movement. Where you will likely never make money….but somene else will. This is pretty much exactly why I’ve never uploaded a single model to Thingiverse. The idea of giving away an item, digital or physical, makes no sense. If it was something physical that someone crafted by hand, you would never consider giving it away. But because it’s digital, people pay it no regard.

  9. I personally would love to see the other side of this presented :

    Me and three of my friends are going to start a business. We each own a 3D printer, wo we are going to sell 3D printed objects on eBay.

    We are not going to create the 3D objects we are going to sell. We are going to harvest them from places on the intertubes where the content creators uploaded them. We are also going to ignore any license or copyright attached to these objects, and we are going to sell them for as much as the market will allow.

    Further, our costs are going to be tremendously low. We are not even going to attempt to print the models we take from the internet until someone actually buys one. We are going to take the photographs the content creators’ took of their own creations and use those to advertise the objects we are selling on eBay. If the content creator did not upload a picture for us to harvest, we are going to take the one that the content hosting service itself created.

    Please invest.

  10. Soooo if this ebay seller advertised “send me your CAD file and I will print it for time & materials, all would be good? (oh and maybe they give a link to Thingiverse and other sites as a place to find free files)

  11. What I’m shocked about on this whole thing is the fact that the eBay seller is actively fighting this, despite a popular con census being that it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter what’s legal, what it comes down to is what’s ethical. Fighting legal battles takes lots of money and time. Making an ethical decision takes a few minutes and is free. The outcomes may not be, but it’s relative to the issue. In this case, there was a huge stink drummed up, and as a seller I would pull the auction immediately. This guy played the legal high road and honestly I consider him an asshole. Just because the law protects your ridiculous behavior doesn’t give you the respect of those you use it against. This isn’t a high profit situation, so he doesn’t stand to lose much by removal of the item from his inventory. Who the hell buys 3D printed crap anyways?

    1. It’s good thing to defend against that. From my perspective, the problem is not citing the original works. Most of the people open source stuff for recognition. So these guys are ruining the effort, and are undermining the open source effort. It’s big enough (thousands of models have been put on sale) to raise the question of how to deal with abuse.

    1. If he’d put a link to the original work, and would have just said that he was proposing a 3D print service, yes, it would have been less of an issue. But that’s not what they did, and it’s not a one shot. There’s thousands of works that they are using like this, and their presentation gives absolutely no hint to the creator. So no, it’s not a print service. It’s abuse.

  12. Is it _really_ relevant that Thingiverse is an Israeli company contrasted with a “Philly” startup? That smacks of antisemitism to me. “Why should those Jews make money and not me?” straight out of the 1930s playbook. At the very least it is a total fallacy.

    (I’m not Jewish but the way the world is revving up against Israel [and Jews in general] without any reference to the history of how it got there, and why its borders extended really gets my goat,)

  13. My personal feeling is do not share any models if you do not want someone else to use for commercial or non-commercial purposes. However i feel at best that the ebay seller should at the very least provide proper credit for the models.

  14. I’m one of those whose design is being sold by Just3DPrint on eBay (…at $444, I probably take the cake for the most expensive item!). My designs are all released under Creative Commons BY-SA, meaning that anyone is free to copy, distribute, modify, and even sell it… provided there are proper attribution.

    Much as I would like the poor sod paying $444 for a phone holder to know that the design came from me, the reason for demanding the attribution is less for recognition, and more about pragmatic idealism. Releasing on a CC license isn’t just about giving away free stuff. If that were all, I would have simply released everything to the public domain. I choose a CC license to ensure that the design stays free, and to preserve the right for anyone to modify the design or to print their own. By selling the prints on eBay without attribution, Just3DPrint have subverted that. Their buyers would not know that the design is available for download, nor will they know that they have the option to print it themselves or find someone (…almost certainly cheaper) to print it for them.

    Just as the GPL demands a copy of the license text be distributed with any GPL software, I demand that a link to the CC-BY-SA license be included with my design. Just as the FSF demands that the source code be made available when distributing GPL software, I demand that a link back to the original Thingiverse page (…containing the STL and OpenSCAD files) be included.

    These demands are not meant to restrict, but to preserve freedom and enable sharing. So Just3DPrint, if you’re reading this, please go ahead to sell my designs, please go ahead to charge ridiculous prices, but please… please don’t be a dick. Give the proper attribution.

  15. We must not forget that the current explosion in desktop 3d printing is do almost entirely to people freely sharing their designs, both printers and printable objects. Without this sharing the world of 3d printing would be at least 10 years behind what where it is today. The CC license system motivates people to share because (if the license is followed) it means they will get credit. People donate amazing amounts of work to the world based on that expectation.

    When someone doesn’t honor the license they are stealing what little the creator has asked for. When they do it publicly and shamelessly they are damaging the trust which built this field in the first place, and they are stealing from everyone’s future. If these boy’s behavior is tolerated there may not be many designs available for them to steal in the future. I think the proper term for their behavior is parasitic.

  16. Why do people even use the ‘non commerical’ licenses anyway. I mean.. what motivates so many people to create things and release them that way? Don’t get me wrong. I do agree that if the original author released it under a noncommercial license then it is immoral to use it commercially. But why release that way? I just don’t get it.

    I totally understand the idea of wanting to give something away. Creating is fun. Seeing others chosing to use your work is rewarding (or in this case buy and sit on a shelf for display). Wanting attribution for said work.. I get that. Wanting modified (improved) versions of that work to also be released for free.. I get that too.

    I understand if you want to sell copies of ones work oneself. Then don’t release the source at all! I sure wouldn’t! Not if I wanted to maintain exclusive selling rights. You should know that once you release the design of something free on the internet there are places in the world where people will produce the item that don’t even recognized your copyright let alone all the people that will just break the law.

    That said.. I would ONLY keep my source secret if I think I want to sell it myself. Otherwise.. let the world have it! I would find it flattering to discover that people actually like my work enough to buy it!

    1. i guess nobody really did anything. i’m offering to print for free whatever model the guy sells. just for the sake of ruining his day. ha. dont know how to advertise this though. so any creative ideas ?

  17. Okay, here’s a twist on this: what if the eBay seller was using the CC-NC file he snatched from Thingiverse, printed it on his own machine, then painted it, and was selling it as the paint job with the model for free? Is that derivative or a completely new work of art?

    I sell all kinds of “upcycled” art and custom creative works for sale all the time without a tag that attributes the original manufacturer — i.e., raw materials.

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