After losing the initial legal battle against 3DR Holdings over defamation allegations, Just 3D Print is taking the media company back to court in a new appeal. The controversy started after multiple publications reported that the startup downloaded various 3D models from Thingiverse and was selling them on eBay.
There’s something about the 3D printing community that evokes a feeling of openness and togetherness. Be it the open source nature of the beast, or the 3D model repositories like Thingiverse that allow designers to share their creations with anyone, the technology allows digital ideas and objects to spread across the world.
However, this type of openness can sometimes be taken advantage of or abused. Designers can have their designs downloaded and sold without their permission or knowledge, even if they have the proper protections in place.
Back in 2016, a Thingiverse user named “loubie” — full name Louise Driggers — discovered that an eBay storefront called Just 3D Print was selling one of her models (along with many others) without respecting the Creative Commons license attached. It turns out the Philadelphia-based startup had downloaded hundreds of models from Thingiverse and was selling them as printables on eBay.
This discovery caused an uproar throughout the Thingiverse community, and subsequently, a number of tech publications covered this controversial story. Soon after, eBay had shut down the Just 3D Print storefront in response to user complaints. But CEO and co-founder Ryan Simms believed he was not infringing on copyright, and moreover, that these articles were defamatory and ultimately caused his business to fail.
And so, a longwinded legal drama was born.
A Brief Retrospective on the eBay Controversy and Subsequent Court Battle
For those unaware of how this whole debacle started, let’s start with a quick trip down memory lane.
In February 2016, after discovering her “Aria the Dragon” model being sold on an eBay store, Driggers decided to create the simple and symbolic “Sad Face” model, which rallied the Thingiverse community and sparked a fiery controversy. After a lengthy back and forth between Just 3D Print and the Thingiverse user base, eBay eventually closed down the shop and that was that… Or so we thought.
Obviously, as a community-driven 3D printing magazine, All3DP and many other publications were compelled to cover this story. However, Simms felt that some of the coverage was defamatory and negatively impacted his business venture. In fact, Just 3D Print’s legal team initially alleged that the negative coverage cost the company a whopping $100,000,000 in potential business.
And so, the Just 3D Print founder ended up taking three different parties to court, accusing each of defamation among other counts. Simms filed a lawsuit against Stratasys (which owns MakerBot and in turn Thingiverse), TechCrunch, and 3DR Holdings, a media company that owns web publications such as 3DPrint.com and 3D Printing Industry.
Although he was victorious in the case against Stratasys, Simms ended up losing to both TechCrunch and 3DR Holdings.
The case against 3DR Holdings was taken up by the Philadelphia Municipal Court in August 2017, and the judge ultimately ruled against Simms because, as 3D printing legal expert Michael Weinberg exclusively told ALL3DP in an interview, “we are in America and reporting on public behavior and having opinions about public controversies is not illegal.”
Ultimately, the court decided that 3DR Holdings did not defame Just 3D Print because the plaintiff failed to prove that the media company’s actions were related to any harm experienced by Just 3D Print. It’s important to note that whether copyright infringement actually took place or not was not a factor in the conclusion of this case.
If you want more information (or a quick refresher) on how this labyrinthine legal battle came to fruition before you scroll on, we also recommend checking out our previous coverage linked below.
What is Simms Alleging in the New Appeal Against 3DR Holdings?
Although Simms lost the initial lawsuit against 3DR Holdings, he decided to file an appeal in October 2017 (which was then amended and resubmitted in December). According to the amended complaint, Just Print It (which is the official company name for Just 3D Print) is now suing 3DR Holdings on three counts: defamation, unfair trade practices, and tortious interference.
We talked to Simms over the phone in order to find out why he felt the articles published on 3DPrint.com and 3D Printing Industry justify his charges of defamation.
“There were all kinds of claims that were completely factually incorrect, such as the claim that we were charged with copyright infringement. The district attorney has not sent any communication to me of any kind, let alone charged me with a crime, so you can’t say that I’ve been charged with copyright infringement. That’s blatant defamation,” Simms said.
In the amended complaint, you can see Simms’ legal team is arguing that the article on 3DPrint.com contained “false statements” about Just 3D Print. After browsing through the court documents, it’s clear the the plaintiff’s position is that the article contained opinions that were presented as fact.
As this is a relatively complicated legal matter, we decided to get 3D printing and copyright law expert Michael Weinberg to help break down the allegations.
“I think that comes back to the statement that – it continues to rest on his assertion that the claims in the articles were false, and maliciously false. And tortious interference is similar. It’s the idea that there the plaintiff wanted to, in certain ways, sell things and that 3DR kind of swooped in and interfered with the sale of the item between the seller and the customer,” says Weinberg.
“So, all of these circle around this idea that this article was false and sullied the name of the business and drove away potential customers because it was full of false accusations.”
Simms also pointed an accusatory finger at the current state of journalism, stating that the publications under the umbrella of 3DR Holdings didn’t follow “the proper procedure of labeling their opinions”, and added “that is a terrible thing for us and for many other people that have negative articles written about them falsely”.
The Just Print It founder also told us that he offered to drop the lawsuit against 3DR Holdings if the media company decided to rewrite the stories “as an opinion piece”.
“We’ve made that offer again halfway through the litigation. I might offer it again, despite spending enormous amounts on litigation to date, just to be over and done with things, but unfortunately, the journalistic outlets – you guys , 3DPrint.com, and 3D Printing Industry – have absolutely no willingness to go through and correctly label things as opinion. Because we simply have no other choice, that has led to litigation,” Simms says.
After talking to Alan and John Meckler, the father-son duo that runs 3DR Holdings, they confirmed that Simms did offer to drop litigation, but also that his demands were a little different.
“I did have a conversation with him after he filed the appeal in which he seemed to indicate that if we would delete all the articles, he would drop the case. Actually, first, he said we must delete all the articles and pay his legal bills, then he just said to delete the articles,” John Meckler responded.
3DR Holdings Responds to Just 3D Print’s Recent Appeal
In the response to the new complaint, Alan and John Meckler vehemently refute the allegations, and are confident that the judge will rule in their favor once again. In the Preliminary Objections to Amended Complaint, the legal team of 3DR Holdings argues the following:
Just Print alleges that the article is defamatory, and that as a result of this article eBay banned Just Print from selling any items in the site. Just Print identifies no evidence to support this claim, and in fact has brought multiple lawsuits against various defendants alleging the exact same conduct raising the obvious question of causation.
Alan Meckler expressed that the case has heavy implications about freedom of press and personal reputation, and he believes that Simms has a “vendetta” against the media company.
“We feel that the facts totally go against every one of those claims. Again, it’s now a question of reputation and freedom of the press, and that he’s just trying to bully us into removing articles, which is silly because even if we didn’t have them in our archive, they’ll be on Google forever. So, the whole thing – from the beginning to this latest claim – appears to be a vendetta by somebody who is imbalanced,” Alan Meckler said.
Meckler went on to defend the journalistic approach taken by 3DPrint.com on the matter.
“A writer can’t run anything unless they are essentially working with what they perceive to be facts, unless they’re being dishonest. There’s the fact of what he did; there’s the fact of what eBay did. It’s a question of how you want to interpret that,” Meckler says.
According to Weinberg, 3DR Holdings is essentially arguing that the article was clearly an opinion piece and therefore can’t be labeled as defamatory.
“They’re actually stating that an opinion clearly stated as an opinion cannot be defamatory and, therefore, the ultimate truth of that opinion is not as important as the fact that it was clearly presented as an opinion and not a statement of facts,” Weinberg explained.
The legal expert told us that, unless Simms presents new evidence that proves the 3DPrint.com article caused eBay to shut down the Just 3D Print storefront, the ruling is likely to be in favor of 3DRHoldings yet again.
“He’d have to provide evidence that that is the case. He may not have to provide a smoking gun, like someone’s internal email at eBay where someone says, ‘Oh, I saw this article and therefore we’re taking this down.’ But he would have to convince a fact-finder, probably a judge in this case – maybe a jury – that that is probably what happened. I haven’t seen any evidence to that effect.
I think there is also – because of the discussion on the Thingiverse page, there’s also at least a suggestion that the users on Thingiverse – the people who thought their rights were being violated – were discussing sending takedown notices to eBay.”
The Final Say: Copyright Issues, Fact vs Opinion, and Freedom of Press
Ultimately, the entire lifespan of this controversy has been shrouded with confusion, lack of clarity, and perhaps even outlandish allegations. Even an legal expert like Weinberg seems a bit flabbergasted that this case is still going on. As he puts it to ALL3DP:
“At this point I have no idea what purpose this case is serving. It does seem to be effective at wasting a lot of people’s time. It is also starting to develop the characteristics of the types of cases that are brought to intimidate critics and find scapegoats for the failure of stupid business ideas. Without even getting to the question of if there was copyright infringement or not, two courts have already concluded that the reporting in question here is not the type of behavior that can trigger defamation. Just 3D Print does not appear to have found any new evidence to call that basic conclusion into question or any substantive reason why those courts are incorrect.”
Will this be the final chapter in the saga? Probably not. According to Simms, Stratasys is in the process of appealing the case that the company previously lost to Just Print It, and that the court is scheduled to take that up in May 2018.
For now, we will have to wait and see how the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas rules over the appeal, but at first glance, it doesn’t seem like Simms has brought much to the table in terms of new evidence. Needless to say, it’s fascinating to see how a controversy centered around potential infringement of Creative Commons has evolved into an argument about freedom of press and fair business practices.
Unfortunately, the dilemma has also cast a wider light on the muddled and ambiguous nature of copyright issues in the 3D space. While Creative Commons licenses exist to protect designers and creators who wish to share their work, there remains a slight ambiguity of whether the subject of a 3D design constitutes copyright infringement, and furthermore, what can actually be done about it when these boundaries appear to be crossed.