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CC and the 3D Printing Community


Time-Lapse of a RepRap Printing Interlocking Rings by Jonathan Palecek / CC BY.

With the exception of CC0, the Creative Commons licenses are only for granting permissions to use non-software works. The worlds of software and engineering have additional concerns outside of the scope of what is addressed by the CC licenses. 3D printing is a new medium which encompasses both the creative domains of culture and engineering, and often 3D printed works do not fall neatly into either category. The purpose of this article is to explore the similarities between the community that has grown around 3D printing and that of the commons which CC strives to empower. A later article will explore problems with adopting CC in the 3D printing community.

3D printing is still very much a niche, and so a brief explanation is in order before discussing the culture behind it. 3D fabrication technologies are essential in contemporary manufacturing, and a wide variety exist. 3D printing generally speaks of what is called an “additive” process; in which an object is realized by building up layers of solid material. RepRaps and Makerbots – two types of 3D printers discussed in this article – are additive printers that typically print in plastic.

The role of 3D fabrication in our society is wide reaching, from being an essential stage in developing molds of parts for mass production, to enabling contemporary architects to produce novel designs that would have been impossible to construct only a few decades ago. It is a process that is so pervasive behind the scenes of every day life, yet entirely invisible to most individuals. Up until recently the cost of the machinery involved had limited the use of the technology. And so despite the incredible flexibility of the medium, it remains to be fairly obscure.

In 2004, the RepRap project set out to produce a low cost design for a 3D printer capable of printing all of its own parts. While the current designs are able to print some of their own parts – about 40% for the Prusa Mendel – the rest of the parts consist of generic standard hardware, most of which is available at local stores. The project has been successful in accomplishing the low cost goal – a RepRap costs about $700 or so to build. A large portion of why the RepRap is so interesting is that the schematics are released under the GNU GPL copyleft license. This means that anyone can copy and improve the project as long as they share alike their modifications, just as one must with GPL’ed free and open source software.

RepRaps are notorious for requiring some technical skill – and a good deal of patience – to build and operate. This is especially true with the project’s earlier designs. Makerbots were derived from the early RepRap designs, but were refined to be more accessible. Makerbot kits are available for about $1300 and are said to be only as complex as an Ikea furniture set. One can purchase a fully assembled Makerbot for about $2500. Widespread home adoption is still unlikely in the near future due to cost. However, these printers are affordable for small businesses and schools, potentially giving them a much greater social impact than their significantly more expensive ancestors.

Makerbot – the company that produces Makerbots – is a wonderful example of open hardware done right in a business. The free and open hardware designs from the early RepRap project made Makerbots as we know them possible. In turn, the accessibility of Makerbots allowed the low cost 3D printing community to grow rapidly in numbers. Because the designs for the printers were released under an open license, individuals in the community were free to design their own upgrades. Many of these upgrades were adopted back into the standard product design. Perhaps the single greatest contribution by Makerbot to the RepRap project was developing a stronger 3D printing community, bringing in new talent to the RepRap project.

If Makerbot were ran like an old-school business – one with clandestine trade secrets and which considers its customers to be consumers and not kin – the community could not have grown as it did. Makerbot’s customer base would have been severely limited. Similarly, if the RepRap project had chosen a non-commercial approach to licensing, it would not have been able to empower Makerbot to bootstrap the community as it did. This feedback loop between community and commerce is what powers this new medium’s ability to change the world as we know it. The phenomena observed here is not unique to open hardware; it is often seen at work in the free software realm, and can work well with free culture.

Thingiverse – a social site run by Makerbot – provides a basic framework for tracking derivative work from project to project. Some works on the site see little interest from other members. Other works spawn an endless tree of variations. “Screwless Heart Gears” by [Emmett] is a popular model on thingiverse which exists in one of the branches of such a tree of derivative works. Thingiverse’s framework assumes that a derivative work only has one ancestor, which is not always accurate. And some times the ancestor is off site. Judging from the comments, the root of this tree would be this video. From this inspiration, [Greg Frost] created a program – released under the GNU LGPL license – that generates similar gears, and his own version of the “Broken Heart” model, also released under the LGPL license. [Emmett] used this program to generate the “Cube Gears” model (released under the CC-BY-SA license), from which there are many derivatives by a variety of individuals. The broken heart model ended up going through a variety of revisions just as well as it spawned many interesting variations.

The broken heart model illustrates both the new potential for incredible works to be produced. Artists and engineers are able to collaborate to produce objects with both cultural value and dynamic mechanical aspects. The variations of the broken heart model happened candidly – people worked on it for the fun of it. The broken heart model also illuminates legal gray area. The legal dangers of this sort of gray are very well covered by the paper “It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology“, written by Micheal Weinberg.

3D printing is an incredible new medium which has great potential to change the world as we know it. The ways it can empower us are in line with the philosophy of the read/write culture that Creative Commons works to support, and we should all be very excited about this.

Posted 04 January 2012