3D Printing Legal Issues

Creative Commons NC clause and 3D printing

I was browsing through some 3D printing files today, STLs that both I produced and were produced by others. For example, I designed and uploaded a 3D case for a LibraryBox that others have downloaded and printed. It is CC licensed, specifically CC BY-NC. I was looking at other STL files that had a CC NC license applied to them, and it made me think what that NC is really protecting.

Obviously, at the very least, the license prevents others from selling the STL files. Does it, however, prevent someone from using the files to create the physical object (that is, using a 3D printer to print the box itself out) and then selling the object? My instinct says yes, as the physical object is an instantiation of the digital file. But let’s scale the example up…what if someone built a house based on CC NC licensed plans? Could they ever legally sell the house?

This is purely theoretical. To my knowledge, no one is selling my designs, and I’m not planning to sell anyone else’s. But I am curious where the line between licensing a digital file and the resultant legal implications of the physical instantiation of that file might be.

The only case and real discussion I can find online is this case that was written up by Make, US Legal Lessons from Canada’s First STL IP Infringement Case. The discussion there indicates that Make’s author, Michael Weinberg, doesn’t believe that, once printed, there is any protection for a utilitarian object under copyright law (and since that’s what underpins Creative Commons, nothing there either).

Anyone want to weigh in on this?

By griffey

Jason Griffey is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at NISO, where he works to identify new areas of the information ecosystem where standards expertise is useful and needed. Prior to joining NISO in 2019, Jason ran his own technology consulting company for libraries, has been both an Affiliate at metaLAB and a Fellow and Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and was an academic librarian in roles ranging from reference and instruction to Head of IT at the University of TN at Chattanooga.

Jason has written extensively on technology and libraries, including multiple books and a series of full-periodical issues on technology topics, most recently AI & Machine Learning in Libraries and Library Spaces and Smart Buildings: Technology, Metrics, and Iterative Design from 2018. His newest book, co-authored with Jeffery Pomerantz, will be published by MIT Press in 2024.

He has spoken internationally on topics such as artificial intelligence & machine learning, the future of technology and libraries, decentralization and the Blockchain, privacy, copyright, and intellectual property. A full list of his publications and presentations can be found on his CV.
He is one of eight winners of the Knight Foundation News Challenge for Libraries for the Measure the Future project (, an open hardware project designed to provide actionable use metrics for library spaces. He is also the creator and director of The LibraryBox Project (, an open source portable digital file distribution system.

Jason can be stalked obsessively online, and spends his free time with his daughter Eliza, reading, obsessing over gadgets, and preparing for the inevitable zombie uprising.

3 replies on “Creative Commons NC clause and 3D printing”

Perhaps there is a legal difference between selling a single manifestation (including a set, say of chairs) which one has owned, used and no longer needs; and a commercial activity of making in order to sell.

NC has always been a hard one for me and I’ve just decided that it’s in the eye of the beholder should anyone actually decided to sue over it.

I generally run into it when I’m using an CC BY-NC image in a presentation. Does it become “commercial” if I’m being paid to give the presentation? Does it become commercial if people have to pay to attend my presentation whether or not I’m being paid?

In the end I’ve decided that since I’m not selling that person’s image directly, and generally offer the presentation file for free to anyone after the event I’m ok.

That being said, if someone objected to their image after the fact, I’d probably take it down. (Assuming I’d been paid to give the presentation.)

One other quick story: Author posted story on their Web site under CC BY-NC. I posted it to my Scribd account. Author issued DMCA takedown saying it was commercial since Scribd had ads on the site. It came down, Scribd agreed with me but the DMCA tied their hands. I spoke with the author and in the end we agreed to disagree.

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