Who Owns History When It is Made of 3D Printed Lego?
I apologise outright for going off on a tangent before I even start, but, whenever I run into a 3D printed Lego item, my mind just cannot help wandering into the very foggy realm of 3D model copyrights. I concede I do not yet know a great deal about the possible application of copyrighting laws to 3D printing. However, while in the area of industrial prototyping the possible boundaries are more defined – and the priority is to protect a file from possible espionage – in the consumer world the lines lose clarity.
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A LEGO representative once told me that they are very happy when someone 3D prints something, in a non commercial environment, that somehow celebrates their bricks. During the same conversation, the person stated that they would also pursue — with any means necessary — anyone copying LEGO products to sell them for financial gain.
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As much as I – as someone who really likes the study of History (though I have really come to appreciate it more since leaving school) – really do like Woody’s Minifg Customs in 3D very much and personally think it is an amazing project that should be supported, I cannot help but wonder what Lego will have to say about it. Hopefully nothing, as Woody’s items, which are for sale on Shapeways, are accessories that, if anything, should promote the sale of more LEGO figures.
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Then again LEGO might think that, instead of buying new products from them, people can just keep playing over and over with their old LEGO figures by purchasing Woody64’s awesome hats and accessories to collect or to re-enact infinite battles. As new models come out on Woody64’s section, history will just keep repeating itself. Over and over. For sure LEGO is hoping that this history will not be anything like the history of digital distribution for the entertainment industry.
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To try to figure it out let us look at Woddy64’s offer which consists of a prolific collection of historical hats and helmets for Lego Minifigs, for sale via a Shapeways shop and 3D printed by the service provider on demand. The sections already cover more than 20 pages and keep growing. They include events from the past as well as from science fiction and fantasy. In fact they are so specific it is really tempting: items from the Middle Ages, from the Napoleonic Wars, from Ancient Times or from the American Revolution. Russians, Germans, British hats and weapons, sometimes even made into jewellery. All one needs to do to enter this particular time machine is select materials and purchase.
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Prices range form micro transactions of $2-3 dollars for single items to 5-pack offers that rise up to $10. They are certainly not cheaper than official LEGO and may even be less qualitative. But they are a lot more unique. And you simply cannot buy them anywhere else. There are other downsides: not all models are tested for 3D printing and there are shipping costs involved.
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LEGO has also commented that 3D printing is not yet ready to support the huge quantities of bricks they manufacture each year. However I think that the toy giant should also begin to carefully consider the possibility of offering bespoke products to some of its customers (especially the more creative and passionate ones) or they will just turn to other offers, such as Woody64’s, and Shapeways’ in general. The only other option for the Danish company, once the phenomenon of personal manufacturing of LEGO (and any other toy) spreads, will be to fight it in court. But that is a fuzzy world: who really owns history if it is made of LEGO?