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3D Printed Scans and Copyright

Slate reports on a fascinating topic concerning a 3,000-year-old Egyptian bust of Nefertiti, a handsy German museum, art thieves who turned out to be working for said museum, 3D printed scans, and copyright law.

Buckle up.

Berlin’s Neues Museum is famous for the Nefertiti bust in its collection. Indeed, this bust, which was created all the way back in 1345 B.C., is the museum’s biggest draw. So it came as an intense shock in 2016 when two “artists managed to smuggle an entire 3D scanning rig into the room with the bust and produce a perfect digital replica, which they subsequently shared with the entire world.”

Experts began to doubt this story almost immediately. “After examining the digital file, they concluded that the quality of the scan was simply too high to have been produced by the camera-under-a-trenchcoat operation described by the artists. In fact, they concluded, the scan could only have been produced by someone with prolonged access to the Nefertiti bust itself. In other words, this wasn’t a heist. This was a leak.”

Artist Cosmo Wenman was among these skeptics, so he aimed to get his own copy and make it public. This “kicked off a three-year legal odyssey,” but finally, last month, Wenman “released the files he received from the museum online for anyone to download.”

“The 3D digital version is a perfect replica of the original 3,000-year-old bust, with one exception. The Neues Museum etched a copyright license into the bottom of the bust itself, claiming the authority to restrict how people might use the file. The museum was trying to pretend it owned a copyright in the scan of a 3,000-year-old sculpture created 3,000 miles away.” Absurd, to the highest degree.

The Neues Museum does not have a legal leg to stand on here. The bust should (and is) in the public domain. “The Neues Museum does not have the ability, nor the right, to use a copyright license to prevent commercial uses of the scan.”

“When a large, well-lawyered institution carves legally meaningless lawyer language into the bottom of the scan of a 3,000-year-old bust to suggest some uses are illegitimate, it is getting dangerously close to committing copy fraud—that is, falsely claiming you have a copyright control over a work, which is, in fact, in the public domain.”

This attempt at copy fraud will have real-world consequences. As Slate points out: “these 3D scans could be used by people who want to 3D-print a replica for a classroom, integrate the 3D model into an art piece, or allow people to hold the piece in a virtual reality world. While some of these users may have lawyers to help them understand what the museum’s claims really mean, the majority will see the legal language as a giant ‘keep out’ sign and simply move on to something else.”

Slate claims this behavior by the staff at the Neues Museum “runs counter to the entire mission of museums. Museums do not hold our shared cultural heritage so they can become gatekeepers. They hold our shared cultural heritage as stewards in order to make sure we have access to our collective history. Etching scary legal words in the bottom of a work in your collection in the hopes of scaring people away from engaging with it is the opposite of this sacred mission.”

Image Courtesy of Cosmo Wenman and Slate

Quotes Courtesy of Slate

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