Is it legal to print Settlers of Catan tiles on a 3D printer?

When a Thingiverse contributor uploaded 3D-print-ready homebrew tiles for German superboardgame Settlers of Catan, it raised a bunch of interesting legal questions. Is it illegal to make your own Settlers tiles? To download 3D files describing these tiles? To host the files? To print the files?

Now, Public Knowledge provides some legal analysis:

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.

PK's Michael Weinberg (author of the excellent white paper It Will Be Awesome if They Don't Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology) goes on to analyze the patent and trademark implications, and concludes that it's almost certainly legal to make, host, design, download and print your own Settlers tiles.

3D Printing Settlers of Catan is Probably Not Illegal: Is This a Problem? (via Futurismic)


  1. Years ago, I talked to an art-glass guy who had made a test section of a Civilization board out of glass, as part of a project to make a coffee table. ISTR that the borders were etched onto the top, and the terrain was carved into the bottom, so that the hills and mountains were three dimensional. ISTR that they were TRYING to get permission from Avalon Hill, but it was going nowhere.

  2. While it’s an interesting argument, it’s unfortunately moot. Illegal or not, if they get sued, they’ll fold. That’s where the legal system stands today. It’s the only smart decision, even if you want to take a moral stand, because unless you have the funds to fight it, you’ll lose and it will set a negative precedent that would only invite more frivolous actions in the future.

    1. Got it in 1, buddy.

      I run a small business that uses digital fabrication to make awesome stuff.

      We’ve had run-ins already with large companies who have the legal departments and resources to threaten small companies on what I feel to be very shaky ground.

      Once we had to take a product offline and stop selling it because a large company that handles the estate of a dead man’s old copyrights claimed one of our products was a ‘derivative work’. Simply because a single descriptive word in the add copy about the product kinda sounded like something the dead man might have made, they felt that the actual product was something they had rights to as well, even though the product itself had nothing to do with the dead man’s work in the slightest. I think they found out about it from an automated web search that looks for anything remotely simular to the dead man’s work.

      It’s made us very gunshy now about doing anything that a large company might think is inspired by something they own.

      For example, we thought about making an 8-bit style coffee table to sell online that uses two large space-invader-like figures of the base. Think Noguchi, but with two 8-bit space invaders. But because we have no idea who owns that copyright, we’re scared to even try, because we simply can’t afford a legal battle over it. Even if we didn’t use the actual word ‘space invader’ an even though the design isn’t literally space invaders, just the fact that they look enough like a space invader would be enough for some legal department somewhere to smell blood I’m certain.

      Remember early hip-hop and samplers? That’s pretty much where we are today with digital fabrication, and frankly I don’t want to be the first “Transmitting Live from Mars”.

      Now, we release all our work under a CC licence, and partially because we wouldn’t have the resources to chase after people coping our stuff anyways, so why not share?

      I mean an 11 year legal battle in the megablock case? I doubt our total yearly revenue alone (which is around a quarter of a million dollars) would cover something like that…

      1. i’d say fair use applies to the physical as well as the digital. making these game tiles for personal use? cool. manufacturing them on a sufficient scale in order to sell and make a profit? not cool – it’s someone else’s idea, design and mechnanic. invent your own!

        same goes for mr McGrew. space invaders table? awesome if it’s only going to sit in your living room. using Taito’s space invader design to manufacture and sell tables ? why not come up with a novel design?

        1. using Taito’s space invader design to manufacture and sell tables ? why not come up with a novel design?

          Because people don’t want a novel design. They want a space invaders table.

          Since licensing rights are often “priced” out of reasonable reach to be used as bargaining chips in bigger deals, the law deliberately and very clearly allows cheap knock-off designs. I can go out and buy a Rollex watch or a Goach bag from a guy on the street, and it’s totally legit.

          Since Jeff’s designs were only space invader-like, they’re 100% legal. Not that that matters much, because he doesn’t have the resources to defend himself if he gets sued anyway. That was his point, that all it takes is one bored lawyer who feels a momentary need to justify his absurd salary by “proactively defending client’s IP”, incidentally ruining some little guy’s whole month in the process.

        2. making these game tiles for personal use? cool. manufacturing them on a sufficient scale in order to sell and make a profit? not cool

          Well, now, I’m not so sure. It could easily be argued that the existence of these premium-type tiles could drive up demand for the original game, so long as the tiles aren’t sold with everything necessary for game play. They sure look cooler than the tiles in the early version.

          I want to stress that I’m not arguing anything legal. I’m simply stating that–as in many of these arguments–a sale or acquisition of this alternative does not necessarily equate to a lost sale of the original, and may even drive additional sales.

        3. “Why not come up with a novel design”? Have you looked at our website? That’s all we do, day in and day out.

          I’m not a designer looking to ‘piggyback’ on Taito’s brand and ideas, I’m a designer who grew up playing video games and think they are way cool. I wanted to make a coy design joke at Noguchi’s expense by making a simular two-forms-mirrored coffee table, but with two space invader like 8-bit shapes, one with arms up, one with arms down, out of huge blocks of hardwood. It’s not a direct copy of either Noguchi nor Taito’s work, but it does totally pay homage to both.

          But because it’s A. furniture and B. not art and C. I’d like to sell them as well Beelzebuddy is right. I don’t have the resources or interest in fighting a lengthly court battle over a silly coffee table. Herman Miller or Taito might come after me, and even though I’d be in the ‘right’ it wouldn’t matter much for I’d be very quickly bankrupted.

          Also the idea that making just one for yourself is ‘ok’ in terms of patent / copyrights, well, that’s just an common idea. It’s actually wrong. While I agree with you about the ‘fair use’ idea (and directly support it by releasing our designs under share-alike non-commercial CC licence- you like anything on our site, and I’ll e-mail you the CAD files to make your own!) the reality is that when it comes to patents, any copying has to be sued over or you can possibly loose your patent.

          In time I think these issues will sort themselves out, but in the mean time I’ll go back to being the tiny furry mammal dodging the footsteps of the (terribly, terribly doomed) dinosaurs that heavily believe in ‘IP’ and ‘brand’ as abstract things that can be bought and sold.

  3. So I guess we can just go out, copy SoC games en masse and distribute them to the general public. Actually, I’m having a hard time thinking of any product line that couldn’t be subverted under this legal analysis, other than a Coke bottle and a few others explicitly protected by trade dress. Assuming this legal loophole actually exists, it will be closed in short order.

  4. Isn’t it possible that if you are just making them and not selling them, then there is no financial damage that they can sue to get back. Maybe they could chase it off three-dee libraries, but recent history seems to indicate that trying to erase anything from the internet is like fanning coals and business people seem to be getting hip to that.

  5. Copywrite aside, there may be patents protecting unique elements of the Catan hexes, which should be found with some time and searching of the various patent databases. I presume the homebrewers are coming up with unique custom improvements to the hex pieces, meaning they could be patenting their own ideas, then licecnceing them back to the orignal company.

    1. As mentioned in the post and the FA, there is also patent analysis that concludes printing these pieces is legit.

  6. Reading the article, they claim that the company has not patented the rules of the game, but they could have a patent on some mechanical element of it. To the database!

  7. This is terrible, TERRIBLE advice. Copyright also protects the look and feel, and in fact has been extended to software’s GUI layouts. A hexagon is not copyrightable, but add the Catan surface structures, textures, and colors and you’re there. Then when the tiles are locked together and exhibit the Catan game design, you’re beyond there. Do not so surgery on yourself without a license, and do not try form a legal opinion about copyright infringement without a license and many years of practice. That the game has functional aspects does not negate protectable subject matter. Also, just to be clear, a 3D printer does not magically turn the printed product into an original work or otherwise constitute a safe harbor from an infringement lawsuit.

  8. It bothers me to think about making copies of this game, because it’s built on such a brilliant _idea_. Is there a copyright on hexes, or pictures or mountains or grasslands, or little tiles in the shapes of towns, perhaps not, but none of those things would have meaning without the rules and framework that the makers of Settlers worked hard to come up with. Purchasing the pieces to play the game seems like fair compensation for the time spent in creating the system of play we as end users find so enjoyable. (In theory at least–I’m more of a Dominion player myself).

  9. Disclaimer: IANAL IANYL ATINLA

    I believe there was an ECJ decision recently regarding a suit between Lego and (i believe) MegaBloks’ creator :

    Seems like the lawsuit has gone on for 11 years and there was a decision in 2008 for Mega upheld by the ECJ.

    The upshot of the decision is that Lego can’t trademark (in the EU at least) the design of their bricks, as it would solely serve to extend their (now expired) patent in the design of the bricks, putting all competitors with similar shaped bricks out of business. It did acknowledge the distinctiveness and recognisability of the brick. So those elements of the decision would seem to apply here.

    I believe that the trademark law in the United States follows a similar route and logic.

    Now, if the tiles were more complex – like HeroScape tiles – there /might/ be more facts at play, but i’m guessing that the same route and logic would apply yet again. But IANAL IANYL ATINLA.

  10. My (limited) research on what bits are covered by which laws indicates that for a board game, you copyright the art, trademark the name, and patent the rules. IANAL etc.

  11. here’s a thought – ‘print’ is the wrong word if there’s no Print.
    can we get a neologism here?
    here’s another:
    ‘print’ casino chips, move to Vegas, cash in.
    I’d say that would be sorta frowned upon

  12. There are two separate questions: is it legal by the current laws, and are the current laws legitimate?

    As this type of issue becomes more and more common, people will be encouraged to question the current laws.
    Copyright and patent laws are inconsistent and arbitrary, because they rest on flawed principles.
    Eventually, I hope people will realize that intellectual property is not, in fact, a legitimate form of property and therefore doesn’t deserve legal protection.

  13. What if you already owned the game? Do the morals of the question change? Even if you don’t sell the printed pieces, each time someone printed their own instead of buying the game the company conceivably loses money – and unlike mp3s, there are no live performances/additional merchandise/etc to otherwise support an awesome company. Maybe they could start including a code with each purchase that let you download the 3D patterns?

  14. If the actual Settlers game board/pieces were that well designed, I might actually enjoy playing the game…

    Seriously, it’s just too much of a hassle with the official game. Especially the roads. Always pushing the tiles apart and falling in the cracks…

  15. necessity is the mother of invention. the hefty price tag of soc is also what may lead folks to homebrew a game. making a game adds a personal individual creative experience. yeh, having printed cardboard pieces is nice but spending hours crafting is priceless. just don’t sell it under the copyrighted name. take a look at aso brain games. are they in trouble? it’s the same game just a different name.

    i see nothing wrong with homebrewing your own personal version of a game.

  16. The question really should have been answered long ago. Would it be infringing copyright (let’s not use such harsh terms as “illegal”) to cut hexes out of paper and pencil symbols on them?
    Would it be OK to draw them on a computer and print them out?
    Would it be OK to save your design as a PDF and let others use it to make their own sets?
    Would it be OK to sell the PDF so others can make their own sets?
    Would it be OK to make very professional similar art, hire lithography and affix to cardboard tiles, box them up as “Meddlers of Rattan” and sell it?
    Would it be OK to exactly duplicate the art, instructions, box etc and sell it?

    There are lines that must be crossed before copyright holders have a legitimate claim. Unfortunately the lines are always going to be a bit fuzzy. Above, depending on lawyer skill the line could be somewhere between letting people have a PDF for free, and selling the PDF…or it could be closer to the actual counterfeiting of a similar quality item.

    Right now, there are few enough 3D printers that most copyright holders aren’t going to have a grievance until you start selling stuff. But soon enough, 3D printers could be in every office and school and many homes…then they might start coming after the files.

  17. Is it illegal for me to write out sheet music for someone? How about to simply tell them how to play it (“it’s in C, chords are ____, and the melody is basically pentatonic like this . . .”)?

    Is it illegal for me to make my own Monopoly or Scrabble board out of cardboard?

  18. The conflict between copyright holders and 3D printing enthusiasts will only escalate as the tech becomes more mainstream. Just wait until someone tries to homebrew a Yoda action figure.

  19. I think this is one of those cases where just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

    There’s no alternate channels where you’re supporting someone coming up with great ideas more directly or copyright law keeping you down, there’s no man keeping you down. There’s just someone not wanting to pay for a copy of settlers of catan. Let’s not dress up middle class self entitlement as a moral high ground in this case.

  20. more importantly, can you really stop it from happening?

    3d printing will do to atoms what the internet has done to bits.

    in the end, the only way to stop 3d printing of unauthorized things is the same way you stop unauthorized file sharing: going house to house and shooting people.

    1. What if there is a Official Sanctioned Tournament and you bring your “custom” pieces? Games Workshop would pull players out of games for their miniature war game retrofits. Or selling pieces on ebay but calling them Colonists of Matan pieces.

    2. You’re dead-on: it’s very hard to stop people from doing what they want when they are empowered with new tools. The genie’s already out of the bottle here, it’s now up to the ‘old empire’ as to what’s going to happen within our lifetimes with it.

      And boy howdy about the Yoda thing. Just you wait until some fan starts cranking out custom 3D prints of Star Wars toys that are cooler than the ‘real’ ones for the sparks to really fly. I mean, what, is Ponoko / Shapeways et all are gonna have to put something like YouTube has in place to scan every 3D model uploaded for infringements?

      We get invited to conferences to talk about digital fabrication sometimes. When talking with others about 3D printing, someone usually pontificates “what happens when someone wants to 3D print a AK-47?!?”.

      This conveniently forgets the fact that the part of the point of the AK-47’s design was that it was ridiculously easy and cheap to make. Any metal shop can make them, it’s not like a metal press ‘knows’ it’s making a illegal gun. Yet we don’t find ourselves knee-deep in AK-47’s, and we only see a lot of them in places where it makes (sadly) some sense to arm everyone with such stupid wasteful things.

      So I think the larger question falls fully into Doctorow’s territory: do we want to spend our time making things of actual value and trust most people or do we want to spend our time suing each other over perceived ‘ownership’ of intangibles?

  21. How do the publishers feel if player’s play the game with house rules that slightly alter the mechanics put forth in the manual?

    If I had bought and owned a copy of the game, I’d have NO qualms about replacing or retrofitting any of the pieces as I saw fit. And, I would gladly share those plans or materials with friends that I knew had bought a copy of the game to enhance their own enjoyment of it.

    But I would not make available, freely or for profit, plans or other materials that allowed others to do the same anonymously. I maintain that if you’re not paying the creators of a creative work who have asked for compensation, you’re just being a douche. I wouldn’t feel bad about sharing pictures of my work, but would leave any actual infringement as an exercise for the reader so to speak.

  22. Has anyone mentioned that the 3:1 port in for foreground is oriented wrong? It should be facing the row of 4, not the row of 3. Also, the wheat port.

  23. The rules are unlikely to be patented, the copyright applies to the art only, but the name itself certainly is a trademark. So this game would be a “production and consumption game” with a name of your choice. If you call it “Settlers of Catan” you can still get in trouble.

    No disclaimer needed. YIAAL.

  24. Personal opinion only: These pieces are far more impressive than the ones theyallhateme talked about.

    Meanwhile, it’s situations like these battles over copyright which will ensure we’ll never get to the sort of society that Star Trek dreams about. Sigh.

  25. The idea that copying a game is perfectly legal so long as you change the name, all of the art, and reword the rules has been around for quite a while. Almost nobody seems to take advantage of it, except for internet adaptions of various games.

    Settlers of Cattan, and Carcassone can be found, with different names and no written rules at all, here:

    They each have one or two expantions worth of extras, but that’s it.

  26. I wonder how long until we hit Idoru / All Tomorrow’s Parties territory and have to worry about the legalities of printing a person? ;)

    1. With advanced vocaloids like Hatsune Miku and “her” devoted fans, this is more of a reality than some realize. The only thing missing is the physical incarnation, and with all the creepy robots, that’s only a step away…along with an advanced AI that -doesn’t- want to destroy us.

  27. I have gone to the Origins Gamefair for many years. There are many people that make and use HUGE settler’s tile sets. mayfair games (the US distributor) is always in attendance and knows about the big boards. The boards are there every years so I guess they are OK with it. now they would probably take a different approach if you tried to sell the tiles. Then they would be forced to defend their rights.

  28. “Is it wrong?” No, of course not. No one can own an idea, even if the law says differently.

    “Is it illegal?” If it isn’t now, it will be soon, I’m sure, as soon as money is involved. You can only imagine the uses of 3D printers as soon as they’re cheap enough.

    So then the question is really, when is this copyright / litigation bullshit going to get so ridiculous and expensive that Humans just have to accept reality, rather than try to impose their greedy, fearful laws on everything? In 80 years? Never? How far does technology have to advance before society stops trying to defend the ludicrous position that “if I stumbled upon an idea, I should be able to make a shitload of money off it, and you can’t.” ?

  29. Maybe there is an equation in this instance?

    How many people have never heard of the game but now have thanks to this attention
    How many people who are willing to outlay effort or money to own the game
    the number of people who would 3D print a copy

    Is this the nett gain Settlers of Catan?

  30. I think you have to make a distinction between making replacement or custom game pieces and copying the game outright. There is already a thriving market for 3rd party game accessories in the high-end board game market. Sculpted figures to replace cardboard player tokens, downloadable PDFs to print out and stick on your existing cards to modify the game mechanics, etc. Third party modifications that are offered for sale probably should be licensed in some way, but if someone publishes plans to make custom game pieces on a 3D printer how is this any different from describing your own house rules on a web forum? I mean besides involving Scary New Technology?

    As a crude example, Settlers has traditionally come with a set of wooden dice. They are not very good as D6s go. I hate playing with them. I’ve replaced them in my set with a regular set from the dice bin at the local hobby shop. Am I now playing an illegitimate, illegal version of Settlers of Catan? After all, no one paid a license fee to sell those dice as an official Settlers of Catan add-on product.

  31. Many variants of this topic have been covered at great length in threads on the awesome website. Generally, in the US, the rules of a game are not copyrightable, and are only patentable if they make use of a particularly distinct mechanic IE ‘tapping’ a card to represent its status in Magic:The Gathering. The artwork of a game is covered by copyright. The particular wording of the rules is covered by copyright, however you can right your own version.
    This particular combination of legalities is what makes it possible for the many hundreds, if not thousands, of clones of Monopoly(tm) to exist.

    1. Just to clarify that the “rules as written” are copyrightable, but not the proceedure for playing the game which would have to be patented. So like receipies, the rules are copywritable only to the extant that they differ from other ways to describe the method of play. This is known as the “merger doctrine”

  32. “not cool – it’s someone else’s idea, design and mechnanic. invent your own!”

    That’s right – if you have ever used a screw, a nail, a hammer, or a wheel, you are stealing someone else’s idea – invent your own damn tools!

  33. It’s a fair bet that anyone who prints a set of these is already a Catan fan; why else would you even want them? And a Catan fan is going to have at least one instance of the purchased product, betcha. I’ve certainly done custom pieces and boards and cards for my favourite games over the years.

    The legal worry would come at the thinghost end: they can’t tell if you’re CatanFan001 (I bet the publisher would be delighted) or the CIO of Colonists of Matan, Inc, about to go into production (I bet the publisher would sue your pants off). That worry could end up with a chilling effect and/or different thinghosts, some moderated and some hives of scum and villainy.

    Between this and the card-skimmer posted a few days ago, we’re seeing the maturity of 3D printing: it’s now good enough that potential bad actors could get involved. Yay mature tech!

    Now, how does the thing community manage the bad guys?

  34. @43 – There are already games that are extremely similar to Catan. The most blatant (from a marketing standpoint, anyway) is Settlers of Canaan. I’ve never played it, but I understand it’s very similar to Catan, but has extra elements added to keep it from being a direct ripoff.

    The names of the two games are so very similar that you’d think Mayfair would have slapped them down, but they apparently didn’t.

    At any rate, anyone wanting an official, licensed 3D version of Catan can certainly get one, as long as they can find it (they’re currently out of print) and afford it (I believe it was somewhere around $300 when it came out).

  35. This interesting article has one significant flaw: by formulating the
    issue in terms of “intellectual property”, it endorses that term
    and encourages readers to base their thoughts on it.

    The article said it would “walk through the analysis of each type of
    intellectual property right”. People who use that term say it
    includes a dozen or more laws, but the article treated only three of
    them. It concluded these tiles don’t violate them. For three totally
    different reasons, because these three laws have next to nothing in

    The discussion of copyright law was nontrivial and interesting.
    Patent law wasn’t used, and trademark law is simply irrelevant to the
    issue. Why pick those three laws and suggest they form a special

    There are many more laws these files could have violated but don’t.
    These tile designs are not defamatory, or obscene, or fraudulent.
    They don’t include government or private secrets. They don’t threaten
    violence. They don’t use anyone’s image. (I have deliberately
    mentioned laws sometimes labeled as “intellectual property” as well as
    laws that aren’t.)

    The idea that copyright law, patent law and trademark law belong
    together is a mistake. These laws are not only totally different,
    they have different purposes. Copyright and patent law are meant to
    promote progress, but trademark law is meant to enable buyers to know
    what they are buying. Calling them “intellectual property” gives the
    wrong idea of the purpose of each law, and that leads to bad

    The effects can be seen in Joris’ questions. He asks what would “let
    Klaus make money from his idea”. This question presumes Klaus is
    entitled to money, and we are obligated to subject ourselves somehow
    to restrictions so he can get it.

    Joris then says the public’s rights have to be “balanced” with “Klaus’
    rewards”. People often say copyright law should do this, but it is a
    misunderstanding of the purpose of copyright. (See The
    term “intellectual property” promotes this misunderstanding.

    He finally suggests replacing a dozen or so existing laws with a new
    system founded on the basis of the pseudo-concept of “intellectual

    Trying to jam copyright law and patent law into one system would lead
    to bad results, even with good will and sticking to the Constitutional
    purpose. They are too different to fit together. But trying to
    redesing them based on the concept that they are “intellectual
    property” is sure to produce a monster.


  36. The biggest problem with intellectual property laws is that we’ve gone too long without a revolution to toss out the accumulation of special interests’ desired accretions to the laws, much to the detriment of the general populous’ rights.

    Copyright originally had a VERY limited duration… under 25 years… and even then, it was considered excessively long. Now, with 90+ years being typical, works are no longer passing OUT of copyright and into the public domain.

    Patent has been, is, and should remain, Extremely limited in duration. The 7 year rule was a good one; some creative patent law applications by attourneys have stretched a few, but in general, Patents expire quickly, and rightfully so; the underlying doctrine was and is SOLELY to allow reasonable time for the recouping of R&D costs, not perpetual monopolistic profits.

    Trademarks have no expiry, per se… but can be abandoned, lost to non-defense, etc. The problem is that trademarks are now being used to justify extending copyrights and patents.

    We, the people, need to either force something for IP equivalent to the Sherman Act, or otherwise force repeal of many of the corporate accretions which the people neither want nor benefit from.

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