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Certain corners of the Internet were abuzz this week with the news that a user named Sublime had uploaded design files to Thingiverse that allow people to 3D print pieces to the wildly popular board game Settlers of Catan. This development raises the question: is this illegal? If it isn’t, should it be?
For the uninitiated, Settlers of Catan is a wildly popular board game created by a German game designer named Klaus Teuber in 1995. It has been heralded by mainstream publications like the Washington Post and generally enjoyed as a fun, easy to learn game. One of its most attractive features is that, unlike traditional boardgames like Monopoly, a game of Settlers is usually completed in around an hour. Also, players are rarely out of the running until the very last turn.
Settlers of Catan has successfully spun off numerous officially licensed expansion packs, card games, and digital versions (you can play on an Xbox360, a Playstation3, various Apple iProducts, and even a Microsoft Surface table). In contrast, these new 3D printed pieces are not officially licensed. In fact, the pieces themselves are not even distributed. Instead, if you want the pieces you need to download the files, boot up your 3D printer, and make them yourself.
Does creating these pieces violate any of Klaus Teuber’s intellectual property rights? In order to answer this question, it probably helps to walk through the analysis for each type of intellectual property right (for a more in depth explanation of how all of these rights work, take a look at the PK whitepaper It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology).
Let’s start with copyright. Settlers of Catan is probably protected by copyright. Importantly, that protection does not cover the entirety of the game. Instead, copyright protects the design on the game tiles. This makes sense – the image on the tile (of pastures, or fields, or rocky quarries, or the like) is just a picture, and pictures are well within the scope of copyright. However, Sublime’s 3D designs make no attempt to copy the images on the tiles. Copyright might also protect the shapes of the pieces, except these shapes are so generic and utilitarian (rectangles for roads, simple houses for settlements) that any protection would be extremely limited. Moreover, Sublime’s pieces are generally more ornate that the official versions.
Copyright does not protect the shapes of the tiles (they are designed to fit together, and are therefore most likely “functional objects” outside of the scope of copyright). Nor does copyright protect the actual rules of Settlers of Catan. Game rules, like recipes, have a limited number of ways that they can be expressed. Copyright protects expressions, not ideas. Therefore, in order to protect the free flow of ideas, recipes and game rules are rarely protected by copyright.
You can patent a board game to protect the rules of the game. In this case, it does not appear that Klaus Teuber patented the rules to Settlers of Catan. Even if he had patented the rules, that patent would expire in 2015 at the latest, opening the proverbial floodgates in four short years.
Of course, there is also trademark. Settlers of Catan is a registered trademark (although apparently only recently). However, that only protects the mark “Settlers of Catan.” As long as no one tries to suggest that the Settlers of Catan company is behind the pieces, there should not be a trademark problem. Sublime does mention Setters of Catan in his description of the pieces, but he does so in order to tell people that these pieces are compatible with the game, not that they are from the company behind the game.
As you may have noticed, I have not discussed the fact that Sublime’s efforts are non-commercial. That is because I don’t think that it is relevant for this analysis. After all, there is no non-commercial exception to patent infringement. Non-commercial use is important when considering fair use in the copyright context, but as discussed above there does not appear to be any copyright violation requiring a fair use analysis.
So, Sublime’s pieces do not violate copyright, do not violate patent, and do not violate trademark. Should they violate something?
That is a policy question. It is worth remembering that this is not a new problem specific to 3D printing. If you don’t have a Makerbot or RepRap at home, there is nothing to stop you from cutting up some pieces of paper to make your own board and start playing today. Similarly, if you are really in to resin casting you may already have your own custom board. Also, Sublime’s board is cooler than the standard board (or at least my standard board). It has ridges of fancy pieces and looks neater than painted sticks on cardboard.
Right now, I don’t have a good policy answer for how we should deal with this. Currently, a certain amount of friction prevents this type of replication from becoming widespread. Official Settlers of Catan games are relatively inexpensive. In most cases it is much more trouble than it is worth to cut up pieces of paper, or cast pieces in resin and hand paint them. Most people do not have 3D printers at home, and the time it will take to successfully print out an entire game is almost certainly longer than it would take to go to a store and buy the game.
That being said, it is not hard to imagine a world where everyone does have a 3D printer at home, and it really is just as easy to have it print out a bunch of pieces as it would be to click and order the game online. How will Klaus Teuber have to adapt to that reality? I am not sure, but it will be interesting to find out.