Friday, 13 December 2013


One of these days I'll go on a course on ethics, but I imagine it will be a challenge for all concerned.

Having easily made a 3D print of an ABS key, I have an openscad file that will allow anyone with a makerbot or similar to make an ABS key quickly and easily, and do so from something as simple as a photo of a key.

It took maybe an hour to make the file, using some simple digital callipers on one of the keys, and only took that long because I am not really an expert on openscad yet or that used to making models. The mistakes I made were simple ones that someone more experienced would not have (adjusting size by 0.2mm to allow for plastic over print).

I was pondering posting the openscad file on thingiverse. And why not?

After all, the underlying issue here, that anyone could easily copy almost any physical key using a 3D printer, is not my doing. Publishing the openscad file makes copying such keys just a tiny bit easier. It is far more likely that someone will use the file for fun, or to make a spare key for their own lock, than any thief will use the file for some nefarious purpose.

I would not be publishing anything that is hidden or secret - the dimensions of the key are apparent to anyone with a key.

So is there an ethical question on this? Would it be wrong to post the openscad file for these keys? and if so, why, exactly?

I am sure people will have views on this...


  1. Will you be taking bets for length of time between posting, and thingiverse receiving a takedown "request" or demand?

    1. Well, that is the other thing - but on what basis would anyone (ABS presumably) make such a demand I wonder.

    2. This presupposes that there is a legal basis behind most "requests" for takedown, rather than a grumpy business decided to instruct lawyers, in the hope of some mumbo-jumbo based intimidation.

    3. Bearing in mind that, given that the rules on liability for hosting in Europe are stacked in favour of a claimant / rightsholder, not a defendant/host, the argument an aggrieved company might make is perhaps this:

      1.) The original key is an "artistic work", for the purposes of copyright law:

      “artistic work” means (a)a ... sculpture ..., irrespective of artistic quality

      2.) By printing a copy of the key, you have created a copy of that artistic work. The right to copy a work is reserved to the owner of copyright. Without a licence, or the performance of a permitted act, you infringe copyright:

      Copying in relation to a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work means reproducing the work in any material form.

      3.) Making an OpenSCAD instruction of a 3D work may be an infringement by copying in itself, even if you do not actually print a copy:

      (3)In relation to an artistic work copying includes ... the making of a copy in two dimensions of a three-dimensional work.

      Copying includes "storing the work in any medium by electronic means".

      (However, would this not mean that merely photographing the key was an infringement of copyright.)

      4.) By providing the OpenSCAD file, you (or your hosting provider), further infringes copyright, secondarily:

      Copyright in a work is infringed by a person who, without the licence of the copyright owner—



      an article specifically designed or adapted for making copies of that work, knowing or having reason to believe that it is to be used to make infringing copies.

      You meet the knowledge requirement, since you consider that "someone will use the file ... to make a spare key for their own lock".

      5.) The company then puts it to the hosting provider that, given the above, the openscad file amounts to both a primary and secondary infringement of copyright and that, if the hosting provider does not take it down, they become liable for that infringement too.

      Personally, I'm not convinced that the above is the correct analysis of copyright law, but it might be enough to persuade a hosting provider not to chance their luck.

    4. Wow. BTW I always thought 2D of a 3D (photo) was allowed, so you learn something new every day. But is each and every key combination a sculpture, and who makes it - if the key is made up by the lock smith, did they make the sculpture?

    5. Actually, you get in to all sorts of interesting things if you consider an individual instance of a key to be a sculpture - if you go get a new key cut, does the key cutter have licence to copy that key? If they make a new key and lock, picking a combination, they have not copied it (even if they happen to make something that is the same as another key, they did not copy that key). Does that lock smith own the copyright in that individual key and could they legally ban someone else making a copy key (quite independent of any protection the original lock and key blank makers may have). And how is an openscan file and 3D printer any different to a book on key cutting and a lathe? Providing tools to allow someone to make a copy of something is not always a secondary breach is it? It is an interesting area isn't it??

    6. I don't think that this is correct!

      I would likely argue that the key is not an artistic work — it is simply a 3D functional item. It is not a sculpture in any commonly-understood sense of the term. It might be attractive (to geeks, perhaps), but any attractiveness is secondary to the reason why it looks the way it does, which is to perform a function.

      As the Supreme Court held in the Star Wars case:

      It would not accord with the normal use of language to apply the term “sculpture” to a 20th century military helmet used in the making of a film, whether it was the real thing or a replica made in different material, however great its contribution to the artistic effect of the finished film. The argument for applying the term to an Imperial Stormtrooper helmet is stronger, because of the imagination that went into the concept of the sinister cloned soldiers dressed in uniform white armour. But it was the Star Wars film that was the work of art that Mr Lucas and his companies created. The helmet was utilitarian in the sense that it was an element in the process of production of the film.

      The key, whilst attractive, is utilitarian.

    7. Yes, the functional aspect should destroy almost any protection ABS might otherwise be able to claim. There was a notable case involving the three-head shaver (Philips?) - they tried to claim protection for that triangular arrangement of foils, but lost because, as they had previously claimed in marketing, that arrangement gave a better shave, rather than just being a distinctive Philips design. They'd be very limited in options for protecting the keys from duplication - deliberately so, in the same way Hoover don't get to assert a monopoly on bags which fit a particular vacuum cleaner.

  2. Replies
    1. There are such things as design rights, and trade marks, and all sorts. But copyright is not quite the issue here - if I was publishing a scan/photocopy of their design documents, it would be a breach of copyright. If I was selling keys, it may be a trade mark issue. Simply publishing the measurements I have made from a key, which is essentially what the openscad script is, is unlikely to be a breach of anything that I know of - but happy to be corrected.


  3. Right now 3D printers are niche. If someone has one then all you're doing is making them spend about the same amount of time reproducing your work for another key.

    You may as well publish. Certainly someone might want to make themselves an emergency spare for their own doors, publishing would be helpful. Even if I could copy a key from an image on the web, I'd still need to know which door it belonged to.

    The question you're asking is "Do guns kill people or is it people who kill people, with guns?"


  4. I don't see the harm in publishing, 3D printing, right now, is niche - the people doing it are likely able to reproduce what you did easily. You'd be saving someone a little bit of time but not much. Someone needing an emergency spare might appreciate it though.

    Even if I could fashion a 3d printed key from an image off the web, I'd still need to know which door it was for.

    The question really is "Do guns kill people or do people kill people with guns?"

  5. I can't help but see a parallel to the "full disclosure" vs "responsible disclosure" argument in computer security.

    If you don't disclose, the bug won't get fixed. If you only disclose to a few responsible people, the bug doesn't get fixed. It's only if you disclose to the world that anyone can be bothered to do anything.

    With all due respect to Adrian, I'm sure he's not the only person who has worked out how to do this. And I'm sure he's not the least ethical.