Digital Heritage: Theories, Methods and Challenges

Copyright, Ownership and the “Aura” of an Artefact.

Copyright, according to the Irish Patents Office, ‘Copyright is the legal term, which describes the rights given to authors/creators of certain categories of work’ However because of the nature of copyright the right to “ownership” maybe transferred to someone else, for example, “to a publisher. Where an employee in the course of employment creates the work, the employer is the owner of the copyright in the work, unless an agreement to the contrary exists”. (Irish Patents Office)

The above example, when looking at products in the commercial and business orientated world, seems plausible and a good groundwork for law where products are created for financial and/or monetary purposes. However in the cultural heritage sphere an artefact held in a museum isn’t there for a financial gain but instead for the public domain or educational purposes. Presuming that we all have ownership over a cultural heritage object, although the rights to culture through descent is another argument in itself, then a museum or any other cultural heritage institution doesn’t “own” these objects and these institutes are there instead to house the artefacts and conserve them, suppression on certain types of reproductions and replications by the public is justified because ‘if  a museum did not exercise such control it might compromise, or not fully develop, public good will, and ultimately eve risk alienating donors’ (Cronin 17) thus the reasoning behind these institutes prohibiting certain reproductions of these artefacts, by a means of photography, videos, 3D scans etc…, is not because they want to stop the spread of knowledge but instead, to uphold the integrity of the object. I believe however that there could potentially be a more sinister financial and commercial reason behind this. Museums argue the curtailing of unauthorised reproductions is to uphold the prestige, rarity and “aura” of the artefact and to try and prevent poor reproductions of the original, which may be true however there is no getting away from the fact that after every museum exhibition there’s a“exit through the gift shop” mentality where you can buy the reproductions museums were claiming were destroying the prestige, rarity and aura of the artefacts… who are to say the museums own reproductions are not doing the same.

Perhaps their argument is that without this suppression of the potential to reproduce there will be more availability to access the artefacts and thus perhaps a decline in visitor numbers to the museum, again affecting them financially. This point was also brought up by Cronin who gave the example of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony, the manuscript of which can be found the Morgan Library. People listen to and play this symphony every day, after a quick google search of the Morgan Library it appears they have also digitised the manuscript which anybody can view online. Although they are based in the US, I can view it here from my home in Ireland. This access by the many to view the manuscript, listen to it and also play the music Mozart created doesn’t stop the public going to view the manuscript in person. This, I believe, is due to the “aura” of an object which is lacking in a reproduction of the original artefact which will always bring the public back to the original artefact. As Walter Benjamin argues in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ‘even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’ (Benjamin 2).  That even the most perfect reproduction of an artefact will be absent of the ‘unique aesthetic’ authority of the artefact (Benjamin).

To conclude, perhaps there should be shift in thinking away from copyright law and who takes “ownership” over an artefact and its subsequent reproductions and instead look at the fact that ultimately reproductions aren’t going to affect the integrity of the original artefact. They are two completely different objects and mediums. Reproductions certainly aren’t going to affect visitor numbers to cultural sites and as argued above the “aura” of the original object will the number one factor which attracts visitors to the site. The financial motivation behind the strict suppression of reproductions of institutes is a worrying one and perhaps a far reaching point on my behalf, but my view is these artefacts and the reproductions should be more widely available to the wider public to accommodate their own interests be they educational or otherwise and copyright laws or licenses and contracts shouldn’t affect this.



Benjamin, Waler. 1936 (1968). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Illuminations, 217-51. New York: Schocken Books.

Cronin, Charles. “Possession is 99% of the Law: 3D Printing, Public Domain Cultural Artefacts and Copyright.” Legal Studies Research Papers Series. 2016.  No. 16-13. Pp. 1-22

Irish Patents Office. What is Copyright? accessed October 2017

Weinberg, Michael, “3D Scanning: A world without copyright” Shapeways (2016): 1-16. Web. October 2017.

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