Cultures of sharing in 3D printing: what can we learn from the licence choices of Thingiverse users? (Journal Article)

This article contributes to the discussion by analysing how users of the leading online 3D printing design repository Thingiverse manage their intellectual property (IP). 3D printing represents a fruitful case study for exploring the relationship between IP norms and practitioner culture. Although additive manufacturing technology has existed for decades, 3D printing is on the cusp of a breakout into the technological mainstream – hardware prices are falling; designs are circulating widely; consumer-friendly platforms are multiplying; and technological literacy is rising. Analysing metadata from more than 68,000 Thingiverse design files collected from the site, we examine the licensing choices made by users and explore the way this shapes the sharing practices of the site’s users. We also consider how these choices and practices connect with wider attitudes towards sharing and intellectual property in 3D printing communities. A particular focus of the article is how Thingiverse structures its regulatory framework to avoid IP liability, and the extent to which this may have a bearing on users’ conduct. The paper has three sections. First, we will offer a description of Thingiverse and how it operates in the 3D printing ecosystem, noting the legal issues that have arisen regarding Thingiverse’s Terms of Use and its allocation of intellectual property rights. Different types of Thingiverse licences will be detailed and explained. Second, the empirical metadata we have collected from Thingiverse will be presented, including the methods used to obtain this information. Third, we will present findings from this data on licence choice and the public availability of user designs. Fourth, we will look at the implications of these findings and our conclusions regarding the particular kind of sharing ethic that is present in Thingiverse; we also consider the “closed” aspects of this community and what this means for current debates about “open” innovation.


Together with Jarkko Moilanen, Angela Daly, and Ramon Lobato, this peer reviewed journal article appeared in the Journal of Peer Production and can be downloaded from SSRN here.

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