Perhaps the story of the moment in the world of 3D printing concerns a Japanese manufacturer of cars and motorcycles. Honda has sent a takedown notice requesting the removal of models starting with the word “Honda” to the popular 3D printing model repository site Printables. It’s left in its wake puzzlement, disappointment, and some anger, but what’s really going on? Perhaps it’s time to examine what has happened and to ponder what it means for those who put online printable parts and accessories for cars or any other item manufactured by a large corporation.
If You Make Something, What Rights Do You Have?
The story is that as far as we can glean from reports online, the takedown notice was sent only to Printables by the European arm of Honda, and was pretty wide-ranging with any Honda-related model in its scope. Printables complied with it, but as this is being written there are plenty of such models available from Thingiverse and other model repository sites.
Anyone who makes a career in content creation has by necessity to have a working knowledge of copyright and intellectual property law as it’s easy for the unwary to end up the subject of a nasty letter, so here at Hackaday while we’re not lawyers this is a subject on which we have some professional experience. What follows then is our take based on that experience, our view on Honda’s motivation, and whether those of you who put up 3D models have anything to worry about.
If you create something, you own its copyright. Whatever it is, be it a musical composition, a Hackaday piece, or a 3D model. You can transfer that ownership as I have done to Hackaday with these words in return for being paid, but that doesn’t change the existence of the ownership. There are also patents should the thing you create be an invention rather than a piece of content, and design patents to protect the distinct look and feel of some creations.
If the thing you create uses within it something with a copyright or patent owned by somebody else, that somebody else can assert those rights. Commonly you’ll hear this with respect to music, if my latest ditty samples that of Ed Sheeran then either I should have secured a licence for those samples before I release it, or I should expect a letter from his lawyers.
So it’s clear that if you’re putting up an original 3D print without anyone else’s work within it, then it’s yours and nobody else can claim its removal on copyright grounds. Which sounds clear-cut, but when it comes to the Honda case this is evidently not that simple and there exists something of a grey area.
I have a friend with a fake Rolex watch bought for a few dollars as a novelty on a Thai market. It looks the business from the front, but from the side it lacks the real thing’s chunkiness and of course it has a very cheap mechanism. It’s an obvious fake, and were he to import a container of them to London he’d undoubtedly face a swift legal takedown. As you might expect the same applies to a fake car part, and were that container to be full of Honda Civic door handles with fake Honda packaging then the car company would be completely justified in taking him down.
When Does A Civic Part Cease To Be A Honda Civic Part
This might seem like a cut-and-dried case for a 3D printer model of a Civic door handle then, but here’s where we enter the grey area. An exact model of the handle labelled “Official Honda® Civic® door handle” is like the fake Rolex, it’s passing off as the real thing so would be a justified recipient of a letter. The question is though, at what point does a Civic door handle stop being a Civic door handle and thus a copyrighted Honda design and start to become a different door handle that happens to fit a Civic, or indeed a generic door handle?
There’s a parallel in the world of fashion, a designer can create a couture dress but another designer can make one that looks a lot like it but is not identical without fear of legal threat; this is how the dress worn by a starlet on the Oscars red carpet can be bought for a fancy party within hours of the awards ceremony. That designer just can’t print “Gucci” on it.
In the case of the Printables takedown it extends further than parts into accessories, alongside a Civic door handle, it might catch a clip-on mobile phone holder designed to engage with a Civic air vent. There there can be no possible claim on the basis of copyright replacing to the part itself as the phone holder is the invention of its creator, so all that’s left is the possibility of a counterfeit. Yet again, an “Official Honda® Civic® air vent phone holder” would be passing off as the real thing, but to assert that any such accessory designed to fit a Honda is passing off as a Honda product is extremely tenuous.
It seems likely that Honda are being creative in their interpretation of a grey area in intellectual property, and are pushing that creative interpretation to the limit. They do not own the copyright on designs created by third parties just because they look a bit like a Honda part unless they are direct copies of copyrighted Honda parts, and with something as generic as a door handle they are unlikely to be able to pursue a patent infringement claim.
Given they’ve targeted any use of the word “Honda”, it’s possible their angle is not one of intellectual property in the parts themselves, but in counterfeiting and passing off as Honda products. Once more I think that the carmaker has stretched a grey area to breaking point, as the difference between an “Official Honda®… ” model and one that states it fits a Honda is so wide as to be a chasm even Evel Knievel himself wouldn’t be able to jump.
We Think Honda Are Taking A Few Liberties
So I think that an over-enthusiastic corporate lawyer at Honda thinks that he’s hit the jackpot with a tenuous and speculative takedown, and given that a huge aftermarket car parts and accessories business has been legally supplying bits for Hondas and countless other cars ever since the advent of mass-market motoring, it’s possible that in doing so he’s set the company on a collision course with a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Except of course he hasn’t, because Honda know that this will never see the inside of a courtroom and it’s easy to come after the little guy with a 3D model but difficult to take on a huge car accessory manufacturer. Should you be worried about that car part model you put online then? Probably not, because we think it’s very unlikely that other manufacturers will be foolhardy enough to follow suit.
We think it’s significant that so far this extends only to Honda Europe and Printables, who as part of Prusa Research are based in Europe. Either this is a test of the waters to see what they can get away with, they know that similar tactics would be more difficult against an American website such as Thingiverse, or possibly their clueless lawyer simply works out of their European office. Whichever of these possibilities is the case it’s a regrettable move, and it’s one for which we think Honda should now pay the price in the form of bad publicity.
Meanwhile to other manufacturers we’d say this: be less like Honda and more like Ford.
Banner image: “Honda Ridgeline Sport Grille” by [McChizzle], public domain.