Print chop: How copyright killed a 3D-printed Final Fantasy fad

Final Fantasy VII figurines designed by a fan and 3D-printed by marketplace Shapeways enthralled FFVII freaks everywhere. So much so that copyright owner Square Enix nixed the operation.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
6 min read

This 3D-printed figure of Cloud, the main character in the classic role-playing game Final Fantasy VII, was selling like hotcakes on the Shapeways marketplace -- till a takedown notice arrived. Josh Miller/CNET

When die-hard fans of classic role-playing game Final Fantasy VII stampeded to Shapeways -- the marketplace for user-designed 3D-printed objects -- it was because digital artist Joaquin Baldwin was offering high-quality figures of the game's most beloved characters.

The massive interest was generated initially through Reddit and then by tech and geek-culture blogs that picked up the story and called the figures "fantastic" and "perfect."

But all good things must come to end because of copyright laws (as the saying goes). On Wednesday, the developer of FFVII -- Japan-based games publisher Square Enix (known simply as Square at the time of the game's 1998 release) -- caught on and sent a takedown notice to Shapeways. Shapeways in turn immediately scrubbed the products from Baldwin's profile and Baldwin began offering refunds to buyers whose orders were still in the 3D-printer queue.

Because Dutch-founded and New York-based Shapeways not only hosts 3D-printed objects for sale but also enables creators to use its printers to produce them, the company adamantly complies with such takedown requests.

"Standard procedure," Baldwin told me in an e-mail, "just like a video in YouTube using copyrighted music can be pulled down." It all happened very fast, he said. "I only made that whole set recently, and I posted the full new set of secondary characters two days ago, when I guess I exploded the Internet." (For full disclosure, I purchased the Cloud figure pictured above before Baldwin was forced to close shop.)

3D-printed figures fire up fans, rankle a rights owner (pictures)

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The entire episode, which lasted barely more than a month, is a fine example of the potential complexities involved in the burgeoning realm of 3D printing. In this case, consumers were eager to buy a product one fan had created that happened to be physically printed and offered for sale by a separate company -- all of whom were then affected by the copyright owner bringing down the hammer.

Though copyright laws and 3D printing have certainly butted heads before, the dropping costs of printing, and the number of artists eager to use the method as a medium for both original and borrowed creations, will undoubtedly continue to force the issue.

Defending the Final Fantasy empire
FFVII developer Square Enix is well known for its staunch position on copyright violations and often sends takedowns to even its most loyal fans. After all, it's created a robust ecosystem around Final Fantasy, arguably one of the best-known role-playing franchises in gaming history. This ecosystem includes four spinoff games, bridging multiple platforms; several releases and rereleases of original animated films; and a series of short stories. And Square Enix also makes its own high-end action figures, along with plush toys and other memorabilia, from cell phone cases to clothing. Suffice it to say, the company has more than just a 15-year-old PlayStation game to protect when it comes to intellectual-property concerns.

In addition to this latest dustup, Square Enix has recently been making headlines over its Kickstarter crackdowns. Earlier this month, it nixed a Kickstarter campaign for a Web series based on FFVII, which had amassed more than $25,000 in funding.

The full lineup of available Final Fantasy VII figures on Shapeways before copyright holder Square Enix sent a takedown notice Wednesday to prevent further sales. Shapeways

And last year, OverClocked ReMix, an online group that produces remix soundtrack albums of Final Fantasy games, had to restart its entire nonprofit Kickstarter campaign after having already surpassed its funding goal -- specifically because those who pledged $50 or more received a CD as a thank-you. Only after working extensively with Square Enix to iron out legal disputes was the project given the green light.

I've contacted Square Enix's North American office regarding the Shapeways dispute and where it fits among the company's previous copyright battles. I'll update this story in the event the company replies.

A huge fan's 3D success.
A longtime gamer and computer-graphics professional by trade, Baldwin began experimenting with extraction tools Biturn and Unmass, which he used to pull files directly from the 1998 PC port of FFVII. That allowed him to create the true-to-game renderings of the characters and then tweak them through multiple iterations to get the perfect printed result.

"Years ago I had made just a Cloud figure, but that wasn't that popular, it was there without getting much attention," Baldwin told me. "It was a model I made on my own, without ripping any video game assets or anything -- so it wasn't quite as precise as these guys in the new set."

Made with a Z-Corp 3D printer, this Cloud figure from RPG classic Final Fantasy VII was being sold for $18 on Shapeways. Josh Miller/CNET

Why FFVII of all titles? "It was a groundbreaking game, and it had a lot of influence on me while growing up," Baldwin said. "It is the most memorable game I've ever played. A lot of fans probably feel that same way. There's just an air of nostalgia that we all feel when hearing the music or seeing the original characters."

Baldwin was selling his figurines for anywhere from $14 to $30, with the prices varying depending on the figure's size. One especially large figure -- a deity on horseback -- went for $60, but it was made more as a test and no one actually purchased it in the two days it was offered for sale.

"I did all I could to reduce the cost," Baldwin said. "I spent hours making the models hollow to cut on the volume, and I reduced the markup to almost nothing on big figures like Barret, just so that people could get the whole set a bit more easily."

In the weeks the figurines were available for purchase through Shapeways, Baldwin sold a healthy amount, though he declined to talk specific numbers. That of course meant Baldwin was making a profit on products based on someone else's designs and covered by a company's copyrights. Baldwin says, however, that the amount of effort put in to perfecting the physical models, which required heavy prototyping and hours of CG work, was the reason for any markup in the first place.

As for Shapeways' take on the impending legal ramifications of 3D printing, the company declined to speak specifically on the matter of Square Enix's takedown. But CEO and co-founder Peter Weijmarshausen did provide a statement, saying, "We ask that our community respects the rights of other designers. In order to comply with the DMCA and protect intellectual-property-right owners, we follow a strict takedown process as explained in our Content policy.

"With any new technology that's democratizing access to a tool, infringement is possible, but what we're enabling at Shapeways is a community in which original innovation triumphs."

Baldwin hasn't considered reaching out to Square Enix about a possible partnership. "It'd be cool, but them being such a big company, I don't think it would work out. I'm not a businessman in that sense -- just a fan," he said. "I use Shapeways because that way I don't deal with sales, receipts, and all of that stuff. I just design something and make it available and don't have to worry about it anymore."

He's currently contemplating what to do with the computer models, and even appealed to the Reddit community for info on whether he could post the models online without evoking further legal action from Square Enix -- something he said he's intent on being respectful of from here on out.

Though the hubbub over his creations may prove to be but a footnote in the ultimate history of the legal ramifications of 3D printing and the Maker revolution, Baldwin remains pleased with the products that "exploded the Internet." A complete set of the figures currently sits in his office window, "staring at me while I work every day," he said.

"I'm very proud of them, it's something I always wanted, but I'm sad that a lot of people got excited about them and won't be able to get one of their own."

A set of Final Fantasy VII figures on display in front of Baldwin's window. "I'm very proud of them, it's something I always wanted," he says. Joaquin Baldwin