Thursday, October 23, 2014

Let My Copyright Go: The 3D Moses

Dear Rich: I’m part of the open source 3D printer community and this question was posted to a forum hosting 3D designs. Someone photographed an exact replica of Michelangelo's Moses at a local college. Someone else, using software, generated a 3D version of the statue. At the college's request these 3D works have been deleted. Given Michelangelo is long dead, I would have thought that both the original and any non-transformative reproductions would be out of copyright? What then of a potential transformative invocation into an electronic virtual object? Would that be a copyrightable work? We don't think an exact 3D replication of a 400-year old public domain work is copyrightable. That's because a district court has ruled that exact reproductions of public domain art cannot be acquire protection. Or as another court put it, "[T]he mere reproduction of a work of art in a different medium should not constitute the required originality [necessary to claim copyright]." There may be variables that affect our conclusion -- for example, whether there were agreed-upon terms of use (that prohibited photography) when viewing the college sculpture (see this entry for more on that); or whether the college sculpture differed sufficiently from the original to claim its own derivative copyright. But in general, we don't see the legal basis for requesting a takedown of the 3D imagery.