The post on GrabCAD got a fair amount of discussion on this blog and in other places. In the CAD community the anticipated proliferation of 3D printing and some outlandish misconceptions of how that is going to change the acquisition of manufactured goods, are becoming more and more relevant to real-life concerns about how to handle ownership of data, with moral and legal implications.
There is a point of view which claims that you can own a shape. I believe this to a certain extent, but I’m not really sure how far I’d take it. For example, if say Kia suddenly came out with a new model that looked on the outside like a 1968 Firebird, I’d call that “wrong” or “illegal” or “an infringement”. But I obviously have no problem with modeling a Shelby Cobra and putting it on a book cover.
Chinese knockoff products are very common occurances. Sometimes they don’t even bother copying your design, they just take the parts that they make for you in their factories. One for you, one for me. Knockoffs where they put something that looks like a real product label onto a far inferior product are meant to deceive you into thinking you’re buying a real Nikon battery, a real Rolex, or even brand name pharmaceuticals. To me, and I think to most people, this kind of activity is very clearly over the line.
What constitutes a “shape infringement”? In what formats would a recognizable shape be an infringement? 2D, 3D, wire frame, point cloud, mesh, NURBS? Photo? Hand drawing? This rabbit hole might be deeper than I want to know.
It’s common for companies to protect trademarked shapes or images, with some of it making more sense than others. Like Apple trying to patent phones that are rectangular and flat with round corners. Or Apple crying foul over a Steve Jobs doll. Or a patent/trademark on a Coke bottle shape. Oops, I just used the word Coke in my blog. Do I owe someone money for that?
One real example of shape borrowing in the automotive world would be the classic BMW bow tie, and the Pontiac kidney grill. It’s easy to see the resemblance. I found a discussion on this topic, which has some relevance. This seems to indicate that you can only trademark a shape if it is something “distinctive”. But you have to be careful here, because the legal meaning of words is often different from the common sense meanings. I think it would be easy to argue that the BMW grill is distinctive, and the Pontiac grill is less so. The Firebird above was a Pontiac and did not use that shape (unless you consider the whole grill with the headlights to be elongated kidneys), while the much newer G8 to the right uses it.
If you were to produce a toy car that is recognizable as some real car, you have to license the right to use the name and the likeness of the car. What about if you were to make a drawing of an old burger and shake stand with a ‘Vette , a Mustang and a VW Beetle from the 1960’s? Or an internet cafe with a Nissan Juke?
These are questions that I think need answers. Answers coming from moral convictions are different than answers coming from law. It’s uncomfortable when instinct and law don’t match up.
I personally don’t trust either extreme – the people who think if it’s digital everybody owns it or those who think you can fully own a shape and prevent others from referencing that shape. I believe the law will wind up somewhere in the middle as well. The Fair Use Doctrine protects the use of certain types of data by non-owners (like the photos used in this blog post). Wikipedia is enlightening on this topic.
I don’t have any answers, all I have to go on are my own moral convictions. The law turns out to be whatever the courts decide it is, but it is often filtered through the reality lens by juries of regular people, so the law tends to not get too far away from real human experience.
What do you think? Where is the line?