Article updated: 2023.03.01
When you decide to use the designs others made to create a miniature (be it a recast miniature, 3D printed model, papercraft), there are several legal points you have to consider: copyright, design protection, trademark, derivative work rights.
When someone creates a miniature, they have the copyright to the mini, that is, the right to create copies of it. Creating copies without the permission of the copyright owner is illegal.
If a sculptor wants to copy the designs of an existing intellectual property (IP), they need the IP holder's permission to do that. The way you create this copy (recast miniature, 3D printed miniature, papercraft miniature) doesn't matter in this regard. Copying the original designs without the licence is illegal. The law protects every design for a number of years. After it has passed, you can use the design to sculpt or print your own model, but you still can't make physical copies of the originals, and in most cases you can't use the likeness of real people.
I've seen several opinions and question on the internet about the legalities of copying miniatures, so I've collected some of them.
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Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. Also, this article is a universal primer, but the laws regarding your specific case are governed by the place you are registered in. So for actual legal guidence, seek professional advice in your own location.
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The laws regarding the protection of works might differ from country to country, but the basics are usually similar in the Western world.
The design of the miniature is an industrial design. Industrial design is usually protected from being copied. After the protection time has passed (depending on the location and registration it's 0-25 years), you can make your own products that are based on that design. Until then you might create similar designs, if there is enough difference to make it an original design, that it doesn't deceive the customer. If the design is too similar to the original, it can be considered a derivative work, and the laws for derivative works apply. If the design is based on a real person, it's that person who is the owner of their likeness, due to their personality rights. Even if you get a licence to use the design, that might not cover the use of the likeness of the person. If the miniature has some novel feature beyond being a model (mechanical or electronical parts), it might also be protected by an industrial patent, but for regular miniatures this is not usual.
The original sculpt of miniature itself is a sculpture, and it's the sculptor that has copyright, that he can offer for the producing company to use. However, as the design often doesn't belong to the sculptor, the reproduction of the design as a miniature can still be controlled by the company that owns the design.
The miniature model that is sold in shops is a product, a reproduction of the sculpture.
The name of the model is a title that might be protected with a trademark. So, even if it's legal to create a copy of that miniature, make sure you are free to use the name before trying to sell it. If there is a trademark on the name, just use some kind of descriptive title instead. You can legally use the trademarked name in the description of your miniature.
(As a sidenote, there's often a debate about the legality of using photos of miniatures that are sold in shops. As they are considered sculptures, that are available to be seen for free, you can take photos of them, and publish them. If there are miniatures that can be only seen in places with entry fees, for example in a museum, they can set rules about taking photographs, as their revenue comes from the visitors, who wish to see the artworks, and if it's available elsewhere to see, it causes a loss for them. However, this only means that you are free to take a photo and use it, you still can't use photos taken by others without their permission.)
According to the law, it might be illegal to copy, sell, offer to sell, use or import protected designs without a licence. Different countries might have different laws regarding some details, so always make sure about your legal standing if you wish to do any of the above.
Ways to create copies of miniature models
Recast miniatures: You create a mould around the original miniature. Then you recast miniatures using the mould.
Trace the miniature with a pantograph: You trace the original model with a pantograph, creating a new master in either the same scale as the original, or any other scale you choose. This is the old school way of "scanning and printing". You can use this new master as is, or you can create a mould with it.
Sculpt a miniature based on an existing design: You sculpt your own miniature, using an existing design as reference.
Print papercraft miniatures: You print and build a papercraft design. You might need to create your own papercraft design if it doesn't exist yet.
Print 3D printed miniatures: You use a 3D printer to print a design. You might need to scan the original model or create your own 3D design if it doesn't exist yet.
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Q: Can I copy a miniature legally?
Sure you can! Contact the copyright holder and ask for a written permission. The licence will state the conditions of the process.
Q: Does that mean I can copy the miniature if the copyright has expired?
You are right, you can copy the miniature if the copyright has expired, but that means the sculpt has to be around 100 years old, and I'm almost sure most people want to copy miniatures created after the 1970s.
Q: Can I copy a miniature without licence, if I don't create a mould from the original model (recasting it), but sculpt the miniature myself / create a 3D design and print it?
It's still a counterfeit without a licence if the design is still protected by the law. If the design is already in public domain, you have free licence to create your own designs.
Q: Can I make a single scratch built copy of a model without licence, if I do the sculpt myself / create a 3D design and print it?
You may create a scratch built version of a design for personal use, but then, make sure somehow that it won't get sold (so nobody makes profit out of it), and also, that it's distinguishable from the original (so it won't be confused with an original). For example, adding a text on the bottom or base of the model might help.
I'm not entirely sure about the 3D design, but I suppose, the same principles would apply to that.
Q: Can I create casts of the miniature without licence, if I don't make a mould of the whole miniature, just parts of it?
No, the same law still applies. Every part of the model is protected by the same licence, and that makes the copied piece an illegal recast if you do it without permission.
Q: Can I copy a miniature if none gets a profit out of it? I won't sell it to anyone.
No, it's not about the profit, the owner of the miniatures still loses revenue. If you'd buy it from them, you'd need to spend money. If you create a copy, you cheat this money from them.
Also, you can't really make sure the model won't be sold to anyone. Let's assume you trade it for some other models, and the new owner might just sell your copy. Or you die, and your heritage is sold by the new owners.
Q: Copying the miniature is only illegal if I do it for financial gain. I don't do it for any gains, I just want to have the model for free.
When you get a copy of the model, it can be considered financial gain, as you get something without paying for it properly. Receiving a gift is considered a financial gain, and you get that for free.
Q: Can I copy a miniature for personal use without bothering with getting the licence?
No, copying miniatures without a licence is still illegal even if you don't share it with others. Most people buy things for personal use. If it would be legal to copy for personal use, you could buy one model, then allow it for everyone to make a personal copy.
Q: Is it really illegal to copy miniatures even if the copyright holder doesn't know?
Yes, it's still illegal to create copies of a miniature, they just won't pursue legal action because they don't know what you have done.
Q: There are lots of people who copy miniatures, why couldn't I do the same?
Even if they don't get caught, it's still illegal, and you should keep that in mind.
Q: There are lots of people making recast, and they don't get sued, so this cannot be illegal!
There's a difference between doing something illegal and getting prosecuted. You might not get caught and sued, but it's still illegal to break the laws.
Q: Is it okay to cast copies if I don't consider it theft? / It can't be illegal, I don't feel bad about this. / My personal belief is that I'm allowed to do this.
No, the law doesn't care about your thoughts. Legal issues still stand even if you don't have a clue about them.
Q: I've asked several of my friends, and they told me it's totally legal to create copies of my miniatures.
They are mistaken, don't believe them. Creating unlicenced copies is illegal. Before you assume that something that you've heard is true, make sure of that by counceling experts.
Q: The advances of technology makes it possible now for anyone to create their own copies of miniatures, and the company that made the original doesn't lose a dime. Why is it a problem?
To put that in an other perspective, let's suppose you go on a vacation for a couple of days, leaving your home. Someone with access to a sonic screwdriver just pops your lock, and spends the next couple of days in your home. He leaves by the time you get home, and he doesn't take anything with him. Yet, you'd probably feel violated that somebody got into your home without your previous agreement.
Q: Can I create miniature accessories and bits that can be used to enhance an already existing model?
As long as the accessories and bits are created with your own designs, or designs that are no longer protected, you can.
If the designs you use would be basically the same as the design of the original model, with some additions (for example, a Space Marine helmet with some chapter-specific decoration), I recommend that you only cast that additional part to avoid legal problems.
Q: The miniature is long out of print, is it okay to create copies of it?
Unless the copyright owner didn't declare you can copy it freely, the same law applies. Even if the design of the miniature is public domain, the miniature itself can't be copied, but you can sculpt similar miniatures, using the original design.
Q: The company doesn't sell the miniature parts I need, just in expensive sets, so I can't get them cheap. There really is no other way, I have to make copies of them, isn't it so?
As they are the copyright holders they can ask any price they would like. You don't need to pay them, but you also don't need to use that part. You can create your own or you can buy other variations that might be cheaper.
Q: I bought the model originally, it just got lost / broken. I should be allowed to make a copy of it, isn't it so?
When you buy a miniature, you get a licence to use it until you have it. However the normal licence doesn't allow you to create copies of the mini if it gets damaged. If it gets damaged during the guarantee period, you can contact the seller. Also, if it gets lost, you need to buy a new one, as the licence to use the mini doesn't cover this.
In the EU, there was a proposal to allow the creation of pieces for the intent of the repair of the original, but as of now, I haven't seen it legalised.
Q: There is a miniature I'd like to have, but it doesn't come in a pose I'd like to use. Is it okay to create a miniature based on the original design, but in a pose that is not produced? There is no way I could buy it from the company!
No, it's still not allowed without a licence. If you'd like a specific pose, buy the model and try to repose it. If you can't do it, ask a modeller to modify the original model. Commissioning a new sculpt or printing a 3D model of a design protected model is illegal. When the design is not protected any more, you are free to do so.
Q: The company doesn't sell the model in a material I'd like to use. / I'd like to cast the miniature in a material that's not sold by the company.
No matter what material you use, it's still illegal to copy a miniature without a licence.
Q: But I'd like to make the copy of the miniature in a material that won't even allow it to be used for gaming, for example making a candle or a chocolate for cake decoration.
Nope, still illegal. If you'd really like to have a candle or chocolate copy of a miniature for a birthday cake, the company probably won't pursue legal action against you, but you should probably approach them to ask for a licence to do so. However, to avoid any kind of confrontations, don't show photos of your copy around on the internet.
Q: There are countries that doesn't count it illegal to copy those models. Is it okay if I have them recasted or 3D printed there, then get it shipped to me?
No. If you live in a country that protects those designs, it's also illegal to buy from an unlicenced source, and it doesn't matter if the copy was made legally according to the laws of that place.
Q: I live in a country that doesn't count it illegal to copy models. Is it okay for me to make those copies and sell it for others?
Depending on where you live, making and selling copies of the models might be legal, yes. However, you have to make sure not to sell it to countries that have copyright protection, because than you'll be going against the law. So, it's your duty to make sure that you only sell it to places where having counterfeit copies is allowed.
Q: I've heard that the company allows copying their miniatures, so it must be okay?
It can happen, just make sure about this before you start casting minis. Look up the licence on their website. If you can't find one (and you won't find it on most sites), write them an email and ask for a written permission.
If the company in question is Games Workshop , they don't allow Warhammer recasts or 3d prints. Here is their official statement regarding Games Workshop's Intellectual Property. To quote it:
"Do not cast or scan any materials based on Games Workshop’s IP. Reproduction for personal use is not an automatic exemption from copyright protection in many territories worldwide. Likewise, do not produce and distribute designs which substantially copy Games Workshop’s products (see ‘Imitations’ below)."
"We take counterfeiting very seriously as it ruins the hobby for everyone. Counterfeiters take advantage of our hobbyists and devalue both our products and your collections. We are committed to taking action against counterfeiters and to supporting victims of counterfeiting."
"Producing copies of Games Workshop’s creations is an infringement of copyright; this includes copying a significant part of our creations. Making models which copy heavily from Games Workshop’s artwork, descriptions or products is therefore an infringement. Is it instantly recognisable as one of Games Workshop’s unique characters, creatures or vehicles? If so, it has likely copied a significant part and is therefore an infringement. Just because we haven’t gotten around to making the model yet doesn’t mean you can."
Q: I've seen that several people recast models from a company, and they didn't pursue legal action against them. Does that mean that I'm also allowed to make recasts?
It might only mean that the company is unaware of those recasters, or don't have the resources to go against all of them. However, you should keep in mind that every company is legally bound to go against unlicenced copies. They are not allowed to not do that, as it would make a precedent, and they can't allow it. So even if they don't sue many of the recasters, they might just sue you.
Q: What can I do if I get sued about creating illegal copies of copyrighted models?
If you get caught as a recaster or illegal miniature maker, make sure you look as clueless as you can. Act as if you haven't read this article. The intent of an illegal act can be important in the court of law, so make sure you don't look like you intentionally broke all these laws. Also, get a good lawyer.
Q: Ok, I get it, you can't cast copies of the model. But can I make papercraft models of them?
The same principles apply to any kind of copy, no matter what material you use. If you copy someone's design without licence, it's illegal.
Q: But I have seen companies upload papercraft files on their website, or publish them in magazines! If what you said would be true, I couldn't use these, isn't it so?
When the company itself publishes the papercraft templates, they give you the licence to copy them. It's usually for personal use only, so if you can't find the licence, don't sell those prints to others, just to make sure you don't go against the licence. In published magazines you might even find an authorization that allows you to create photocopies of that page. (If it's not there, photocopy making companies might refuse to make copies of that page.) Just to make sure, always keep the licence part of the paper for future reference. Or you can take a photo of it, and keep it on your computer, so it won't get lost.
Q: Is 3D printing legal? / Is it allowed to use a 3D printer to print a miniature?
Yes, it is, as long as it is an original design, and you have the licence to do so. There are some designs that you can use for free. For others, you might have to pay a licence fee, so always check the source of the 3D printer design. However, keep in mind, that you still can't print any designs without a licence.
Q: Is 3D printing an existing (for example, Warhammer) miniature legal?
Most of the time it's probably not legal to 3d printing existing miniatures. 3d printing Games Workshop models is prohibited. For other companies, try to find their stance on their website or contact them directly.
Q: Is it okay to create a 3D model of a design protected miniature if I don't use a 3D scanner, but just copy the design of the original by hand?
No, it's still theft. Counterfeiters also use their hands to trace models through a pantograph, but that doesn't make that any better. However, when the design protection runs out, you can create and use this method to create 3D printable models. You can even use a 3D scanner to do so. The only thing I'd recommend is to change the actual pose of the model if it's a posable miniature, to avoid confusion with an original.
Q: 3D printing has less limitations than recasting, so it must be okay to print protected designs!
There are some countries that allow 3D printing for personal use, but you can't give that print to anyone else. Make sure you are in one of those countries before you print your model.
Q: I've found a 3D design that's free to use / I've bought the licence to print the model. Can I print and sell as many copies as I want to?
When you have the 3D design that you are allowed to use (you have the licence, either because it's free or you've paid for it), you can make as many copies as you'd like to. However, commercial licences might be more restrictive. Some creators allow you to print the models, but you are not allowed to sell them. Always check the licence before you start printing them for commercial purposes. I recommend you to check the licence when you download the file, and put a copy of the licence in the same folder as you have the 3D files, so you'll be able to access them easily.
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WikiPedia: Copyright: Article.
WikiPedia: Derivative work: Article.
WikiPedia: Intellectual property: Article.
WikiPedia: Industrial design right: Article.
WikiPedia: Personality rights: Article.
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1d4chan: ChapterHouse Studios: Article about a copyight / trademark lawsuit, and ideas how to prevent that to happening to you.
Games Workshop Limited v. Chapterhouse Studios LLC: Court documents about the case.
Sarah Chrisp (for Wholesale Ted): Print On Demand Stores Are Being SHUT DOWN & SUED (Why RedBubble, Etsy & Teespring Close Stores) 💃: Video about copyright laws regarding printed goods. It's not about miniature specifically, but it's very informative and entertaining.
Scott "ToyGuru" Neitlich (for Spector Creative): How are actor likeness rights tied to toy design? LEGO, Funko, Mattel, Hasbro and more.: Video about design licence and personal likeness rights.
Scott "ToyGuru" Neitlich (for Spector Creative): How are Bootlegs toys made? Fakes, Unlicensed, Knock offs. Whatever you call em, we address em: Video about infringments on copyright or brand.
Shipping Solutions: Importing Basics: Intellectual Property Rights: Article about IP rights.§
Spikey Bits: The $40 Fake – Recast Knight Titan Review: Article about Chinese plastic recasts.
Andrew (for Tangible Day): 3D Printing Games Workshop Models: Piracy or Not?: Article about 3d printing design protected models.
The Blue Bottle Tree: Copyright Guidelines for Polymer Clay Artists: Article about copyright and sculpting. Very thorough and informative.§
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Are there still things you find unclear about copying copyrighted miniatures? Did I get something wrong? Do you need advice for your own project? Tell is in the comments!