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3D Printing and Copyright Law: The Case of the Penrose Triangle

3D Printing and Copyright Law

With the development of 3D scanners and printers, anyone who has access to this technology can accurately reproduce objects found in the real world. This has many far-reaching implications, some of which could lead to greater innovation, others which could lead to a whole new host of problems. In this series, we will explore the copyright implications of 3D printing as designers, end users, and lawyers try to sort out the many legal implications of 3D printing and copyright law.

The Penrose Triangle

For the first installment, we will discuss the interesting case of Ulrich Schwanitz and The Penrose Triangle.
To get to the root of this tale, we have to go all the way back to 1934 when artist Oscar Reutersvard drew the first-known Penrose Triangle. Referred to as an “impossible figure,” the Penrose Triangle connects on each side at a right-angle. For decades, this optical illusion was confined to drawings on flat surface and was thought impossible to reproduce in 3D space.

The Penrose Triangle

The Penrose Triangle

That is, until Ulrich Schwanitz, a designer based out of the Netherlands, purportedly solved the problem. Rather than explaining how he solved the puzzle, Schwanitz simply included a YouTube video showing his design. The model was put up for sale on the Shapeways website for around $70.

Now, this is where it really gets interesting. Along came Artus Tchoukanov who had formerly been an intern at Shapeways. Tchoukanov was able to watch the above video and figure out how Schwanitz had created his design. Tchoukanov then went to Thingiverse, a 3D printing community that actively encourages the free and open interchange of design and ideas, and published his interpretation of Schwanitz’s solution.


Soon, a story about the mystery of the Penrose Triangle appeared, wrongly crediting Tchoukanov with being the first to arrive at a 3D solution. Schwanitz then responded by sending Thingiverse a DMCA (which stands for Digital Millennium Copyright ACT) Takedown notice, suggesting that the published Penrose Triangle solution was copyright infringement and that it should be removed from the site. Thingiverse promptly took the post down while explaining that it was the first such request that they had received.

Now that the first DMCA Takedown request has been handed out to a distributor of online 3D design content, it is possible that Schwanitz (who, by the way, allowed Thingiverse to put the post back up after he received a good amount of negative commentary over his request) has opened a whole can of legal worms. As 3D printers become more and more common and people are better able to produce their own parts and designs at home, these sorts of issues promise to be all the more prevalent.

Tell us what you think. If you were in Schwanitz’s position, how would you have handled the situation? How strictly do you think we should be policing copyright laws in regards to 3D print files?

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Spectra3D is a full service 3D printing company specializing in 3D printed jigs and fixtures, casting investments and prototypes.

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