Tobold's Blog
Monday, May 28, 2018
Copyright and 3D printing

I can't draw. That is to say that if I try to draw a face or a person or an animal, I can't get the proportions to look right. It is something I simply never learned. And as I can't draw in 2D, I can't sculpt in 3D either. I can use simple character editors like Hero Forge or Desktop Hero 3D, but I'm no good with software like Blender. Which means that predominantly I am using 3D models that have been sculpted by other people. Mostly Miguel Zavala, who pretty much sculpted every D&D monster from 5th edition (see here, here, and here), and made them freely available to the world. Thank you, Miguel! So because he allows us to use his files, there is no copyright problem in my production of D&D miniatures.

Now I met another DM from my role-playing club, and he asked me whether I could print him some figurines for his Star Wars campaign. As I was just testing my new printer, it was a good opportunity to try some stuff, so I produced an X-Wing, a TIE fighter, and a bunch of stormtroopers. I found the models for free on places like Thingiverse. However when I was finished I had some doubts about the legality of what I just did. We are all aware that there is a huge difference between the ability of getting a file for free on the internet, and that content actually being free of copyright.

I don't know where these Star Wars files on Thingiverse are coming from. Some had somewhat smudged surface features, which looked as if somebody had 3D-scanned a model released by some toy company and turned it into an .stl file. Others were probably using software like Blender, but clearly following images from the Star Wars universe, which are presumably copyrighted. Disney is unlikely to come after me if I print a few toy stormtroopers. But there are companies that make their money by producing figurines for games, e.g. Games Workshop or Reaper Miniatures. What if somebody scanned their miniatures and made those files public, or started to selling slightly lower quality miniatures for a fraction of the cost? A $2.99 Reaper miniature could be reproduced for less than 10% of that cost on a typical home 3D printer. After painting you'd barely see the difference. After knock-off Prada handbags, we could have knock-off tabletop miniatures. On the other hand the companies making miniatures could actually make money from producing the .stl files themselves and selling you the file for personal use instead of the miniature, if they weren't too afraid of the files getting copied.

I am not a lawyer. The kind of information I found on the internet suggests that copyright hasn't caught up with 3D printing technology yet. And just like with music and film piracy, the law will first deal with people trying to make money from copyright infringement, before they turn against the average use who pirated something for personal use. However as 3D printers become cheaper and more common, it is only a matter of time until the shit hits the fan and we will have lawyers all over the 3D model sites.


My partner creates figures and I'm pretty sure he'd be disappointed if he found out people were scanning his stuff in just to create knock-offs. I'd have to say it's not very ethical to the artists.
Why are you certain that the D&D models you already print are exempt from copyright restrictions? The modeller has waived copyright on his work but his source material has to have been copyrighted material from the original D&D published materials, doesn't it? What other source could there be for authentic D&D monsters? Why do you believe that's different to someone using a visual assessment of copyrighted Star Wars images?

Unless you know that the person creating the D&D files has authorization from whoever owns the copyright to the source material, I can't see what the difference is.
@Bhagpuss: the whole Star Wars universe was created by Lucas and his crew. Before them, there was no such thing as Jedi knight, X-Wing or Imperial stormtrooper. However "bear", "dwarf warrior", "witch", "necromancer" are old as human mythology. D&D cannot copyright it any more than Gone With The Wind publisher could copyright the Civil War.
@Gevlon Yes, I get that part. The question is what constitutes and "official" model? If the models aren't based on the specific D&D illustrations from the Monster Manuals - or produced by the copy right holders - they can't be "D&D" monsters, that's the point. Of course anyone can produce their own generic monster figures and use them for playing D&D. You don't even need figures for that - you can just write "Mindflayer" on a square of paper and it will do the job just as well.

Equally, you can generic "spaceships" and "old men waving glowing sticks" for a Star Wars game. The issue is over the exact detail of the image. If you use an X-Wing as inspiration but draw it youself and it doesn't look exactly (or even all that much) like the original, is it a new original or just a bad copy?
I am with @Bhagpuss. If someone copies an official D&D copyright too closely, then the fact that you got it from them and they thought it was non-infringing does not make it non-infringing. I would assume the ones in question are completely safe; it's just that "I got it from X and they said it was OK, does not guarantee it is OK.

And as always, the practical standard for individual/small organization is not "what is legal" but is "what will a corp with aggressive lawyers think is illegal" since even lawsuits you win are a loss.

@Gevlon: I had a graphics artist friend who did a logo for a company who got threatened if not sued from someone else who said the dolphin in the logo looked too similar to a dolphin he had drawn. IANAL, but D&D can not copyright all bears but can copyright their representation of a bear. And whether yours is too similar is a question of fact that will necessitate a jury trial which will involve legal expenses.

I find your discussion of 3-d printing issues to be a quite informative glimpse of the future. Thank you!

Have you heard of any of these models showing up in AR? I.e., my casual understanding is that Apple's new AR Kit which makes it much easier to get AR scenes up and running. Lots of demos that people put together in a day. And Sketchfab AR lets you take 3-D models and put them into AR. Does the software exist to let you put the 3_D models on a table with AR instead of resin?
So they will, what, bring some guys around to stomp your miniatures?
@Bhagpuss: a game without tie fighters or X-wings is not a Star Wars game. The Star Wars universe as a whole is owned by Lucasarts/Disney/whatever. On the other hand D&D owners doesn't own the fantasy genre. For example World of Warcraft is a fantasy game with dwarf warriors and minotaurs, yet it doesn't have to pay royalties. My point isn't lawyering. My point is that it's completely fine to draw a dwarf warrior and it's not right to draw an X-wing, because the CONCEPT of dwarf warrior is common myth, while the concept of an X-wing is created and owned by someone.
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