Unpacking The Opportunities and Challenges of Sharing 3D Digital Designs: Implications for IP and Beyond

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This doctoral research identifies and examines the challenges that 3D printing users face in creating and sharing digital design files, hardware and documentation related to intellectual property and other critical issues. In particular, this thesis describes the processes that 3D printing users undertake in leveraging Creative Commons (CC) and other approaches to securing IP rights. To investigate these questions, I employ a theoretical lens informed by the social construction of technology, free innovation and recursive publics. Through a combination of 20 open-ended interviews with members of the 3D printing community, the development of three in-depth case studies and additional secondary data analyses, I find that fewer members of the community use Creative Commons than originally expected and that there are persistent gaps in the understanding of how Creative Commons can be useful for the sharing of digital design files, hardware and documentation. While the original goals of this research focused more specifically on the IP issues facing 3D printing users, the overall findings of these activities provide broader insights around how users of a particular technology, in this case 3D printing, engage in different kinds of practices around sharing what they have created and the ways that these behaviors create an active community committed to perpetuating the creation of new knowledge, solutions and objects. While this research started out with very focused questions about one very specific kind of sharing (the use of CC licenses, what drives this use, challenges around this use, etc.), the research and findings ended up being more about how the broader practices of sharing digital design files are informed by the existing values and experiences of the individuals involved, field-specific issues and existing power structures, institutions and hierarchies that can enable or challenge this kind of work. Collectively, this research suggests that while IP issues do create barriers to 3D printing users sharing the digital design files that they have created, many 3D printing users have found different ways to address these issues. The learning and insights from this research are used to develop a set of recommendations to inform the development of technical mechanisms, educational initiatives and policy interventions that make it possible for 3D printing users to continue to share what they’ve created in ways that encourage open innovation and the building off on each other’s work safely, securely and with the acknowledgement of creators’ contributions.

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255 pages


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3D Modeling; 3D Printing; Creative Commons; Intellectual Property; Maker Movement; Science and Technology Studies


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Wicker, Stephen B.

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Jackson, Steven J.
Pinch, Trevor J.

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Information Science

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Ph. D., Information Science

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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