I know this is still gray territory and it is asked so many times within the 3D printing and maker community but I'm curious about the limits of 3D models and were it touches on Free Use and infringement. I'm not trying to push the envelope, I just want to be clear on the matter.

Is it legal if a design is rendered in a CAD program of a copyrighted material for no purpose of using, distributing, creating, mixing, internalizing, re-licensing under GPL/CC, or any unauthorized use outlined by the owner of the original work? For instance, if someone is demonstrating the abilities of a particular CAD and makes a mock-up of Mickey Mouse just to show the limits of said CAD and the STL/OBJ isn't released or distributed and a letter of intent is given along with the demonstration regarding the original work (in this case, Mickey), is that infringement? In this example, no loss of revenue or sales will affect the original owner, no claims of ownership is implied or stated, and no physical model will be created.

While considering all of this, I figured that it wasn't very much different than if an artist sat down and drew a picture of Mickey Mouse. As long as the picture isn't sold, distributed, or released, in my mind, that is the same thing as a 3D render.

To further the details of the 3D model, the render would be made from scratch and not imported, copied, or reverse engineered from any other work. Bottom line, it will be a likeness that is created but it will be as close to the real thing as possible to demonstrate capabilities of a particular program (such as organic shapes, stitching, grouping, layering, or any other facet and characterization of 3D modeling).

I already understand that it is recommended to err on the side of caution and steer clear of things like this but it is more of a curiosity than a request for legal advice regarding a specific case.

Can this be covered under Fair Use?

Since there is nothing to be made from creating the render, it isn't released or distributed to others, isn't re-licensed, and no ownership is implied/credit to the original owner is given, is this Free Use or copyright infringement?

  • $\begingroup$ This is a legal, not an engineering question and is not appropriate for this site. Notwithstanding, it's also a duplicate. $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2017 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ @CarlWitthoft I must admit I am partial to legal questions, but I don't see why legal questions - if related to 3D printing - should be off topic. For example, photo.SE has a copyright tag and more than 100 questions using it. Copyright/legal issues can come up during a number of activities, and many SE sites allow legal questions related to their topics. $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2017 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ I would have to do more research, but I believe this may fall under "derivative works". $\endgroup$
    – agarza
    Oct 29, 2020 at 21:30

4 Answers 4


First, copyright laws are complex and depend heavily on the specific details. IMO, your question is really too broad to answer.

An interesting example of how details and interpretation affect whether something is a violation or not is Kienitz v Sconnie Nation. In this case a copyrighted photo was clearly copied, modified, and used to make a t-shirt that was sold; but, it was not deemed a copyright violation. On the surface it seems like a violation; but, the court ruled it was not a copyright violation because of the specific details of the case. Using something as a starting point for a unique creative work that is clearly your own creation is not copying. I am sure you can tell the difference.

Second, in your description you mention "Free Use". If the owner has granted "Free Use" of their product; but, they are still wanting to declare the item copyrighted, I would hope that they have granted that "Free Use" under a defined agreement. In that case, it would seem likely that the creator may just be trying to protect his design from being plagiarized and/or sold/used in a way that is against his intent.

If you have a way to contact the owner, why not just contact them and ask their permission for what you want to do. If they have put it out for public use, they would probably be excited to have other people see their creation. Just make sure they gets the credit for the design. If it is a creation they are intending to protect (like Disney does with Mickey Mouse); then, the answer will be an unequivocal no. Note that one weird exception is that Disney has granted use rights for Donald Duck to the University of Oregon "Ducks".

Finally, you state that that your intent is "for no purpose of using, distributing, creating, mixing, ..." and you list almost every way of making it public. If your intent is for what you make/copy to never make it into the public domain; then, how will your question ever be anything other than hypothetical? I know that there is presently no "private use" exclusion for copyrighted material. It isn't legal to copy someone's DVD for you to watch privately; but, in reality, no one gets prosecuted for a single private instance. It is abuse that gets prosecuted.

In what you intend, it would seem that you be best suited to seek out first what would be the "right" thing to do rather than just focusing on what would be "legal". If you are concerned what you want to do may be wrong and/or illegal, it is probably best to not do it.


Whether or not you sell, distribute, release, license, profit from, claim ownership, etc... of something does not matter for copyright law. Copyright prohibits the very act of well, copying. Specifically, if a work is protected by copyright, you can't (among other things)

  • make adaptations and arrangements of the work

  • make reproductions in any manner or form

without permission (or a license) from the copyright holder. Just because you do something privately, don't distribute or profit from it, does not make you exempt from this rule.

In some cases though, a fair use exception may apply. In the United States, uses that may be (but not necessarily are) fair are limited to:

criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research

Note that in Europe, teaching is usually not considered fair use.

So no, it would not in general be permitted to make a 3D model of a copyrighted work, even if you don't plan to do any of the things you listed with it. An artist would not be allowed to draw the picture of Mickey Mouse as you describe either. However, in the United States, your use could be construed as fair use for educational purposes. However, considering that you could equally as well have used some non-copyrighted work to demonstrate the limits of CAD (there's nothing specific to Mickey Mouse that makes him more suitable than any other model) I would recommend against this. An important argument in fair use is usually that there is no other option but to use the copyrighted work (e.g. in a class discussing pop music you have no option but to use excerpts of copyrighted lyrics).

  • $\begingroup$ No, this is what happens when nonlawyers drop in. IANAL but I've asked my friend lawyers. For example, you can go ahead and draw all the MIckey Mouses you want to. You just can't sell them or use them for, say public promotion. Further, there's a big difference between copying a CAD drawing and producing an object from said copy. $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2017 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ @CarlWitthoft Rather than "my lawyer friends said so" - do you you have an actual argument as to why what you say is true? This document claims that photographing a copyrighted painting is infringement, which is consistent with my answer. I did not mean to say that any mouse consisting of 3 circles would constitute infringement, but merely making a painting using an existing, copyrighted work as reference requires permission, regardless of your use. $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2017 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ @CarlWitthoft That is in fact the reality and not by any means a stretch. If you take a copyright-violating CAD model, and print it, that is infringement and you owe damages to the copyright holder. It's your job to make sure what you do doesn't violate anyone's copyright. You can equally as well get in trouble for downloading a movie somebody else uploaded. $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2017 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ @CarlWitthoft That is not what my link says. Making a derivative work requires either permission from the copyright holder or a specific rule (such as fair use) that makes your use okay. "Not selling" something (or otherwise not making a profit) does not automatically guarantee that your use is fair use or otherwise allowed. Moreover, even just making a backup copy for personal use is not necessarily allowed. $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2017 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ but it is copyright infringement to draw batman on a piece of paper. maybe nobody knows, but under the law, it simply is. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Apr 26, 2019 at 12:43

Can a 3D model of a copyrighted work be rendered legally without infringement?

The answer is yes, but only if you have the copyright holder's permission. Copyright covers intellectual property; the intangible. Patent covers material things; things you can build or invent. Trademark covers a logo, stamp, flag or other means by which an entity can be distinguished from others. If an artist draws mickey mouse because the design of that character is also use as the trademark of a corporation that could be a trademark violation. If you produce a physical form of a 3d model with a 3d printer, the process leaves marks on the output that would make is visually dissimilar to the original. However if it functions like the original was intended, then you could have a patent violation (as opposed to copyright).

In short creating a "sculpture" of from a copyrighted work would be infringing, just as taking a photo of a sculpture would be infringing.



Well I think it's a good question, but like what was already stated this question is extremely broad. I am however curious as well. If I take what has already been said literally and apply it to a 3D model of a palm tree, for example. From what y'all are saying, everyone that has ever made a 3D model after the first person in history made one is now in violation of copyright infringement... Not sure how that makes sense but I am going by what was said in the answers. Because if something is copyrighted and you make something that is similar in nature then I take it all foliage made in a 3D modelling program must be in violation of copyright infringement.

Unless y'all are referring to unique cases where someone was to make a unique piece of art and then someone else was to come along and reproduce it?

Tom said above that these would be copyright violations:

make adaptations and arrangements of the work

make reproductions in any manner or form

Well, reproducing a palm tree someone else has made or a blade of grass would then technically be a copyright violation, since someone has claimed a copyright on it and sold it in landscape packages for example.

  • $\begingroup$ Copyright is in the expression. a palm tree is generic - scene a fair - and can't be copyrighted at all. But the specific pattern of vertices that made this palm tree model is copyrightable as a piece of art. Adapting this model is infringement. Re-modeling this model is infringement. Making your own that is similar is not. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Oct 28, 2020 at 21:49

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