Who Owns the Replicator?

Over the past several weeks, we in the Digital Heritage group have been centering our discussions around 3D scanning and printing of cultural heritage artefacts. For the most part, the introduction of these technologies and the techniques which surround their use has been viewed in a positive light. For many, indeed for at least most science fiction fans out there, the fact that someone can scan a digitize a real-life object, only to then reform said object to various degrees of accuracy seems a dream—one they may have held since first mentions of the replicator and Captain Piccard’s oh so many cups of “tea, earl grey, hot”.

20 years later, the so-called replicator, or 3D scanning and printing as is the case, has opened whole new possibilities within a myriad of fields, from mechanical engineering to the creation of prosthetics and even organs. And, for those of us in the digital humanities, 3D printing, and the antecedent 3D scanning, are revolutionizing the way we work with, analyze, and present cultural heritage (Cronin 2016:4-5).

While at first glance the use of these technologies seems innocuous, the (re)production of cultural heritage artefacts engenders questions which constrain the future of 3D printing within cultural heritage study. One of the biggest debates in this field seems to be that of the question of ownership and copyright when it comes to 3D scans and printed objects.

For starters, are these scans and objects even subject to any form of ownership or copyright, or is that reserved for the original subject used within their production? One of the core criteria for denoting copyright is that a work, be it an object, artwork, media, or even idea must be original (Weinberg 2016:2; Cronin 2016:7, 10). As such, copyright does not, and presumably never will, cover a piece of work that is a simple replica of another—to do so would open up a gateway for copyright claims on any and all pieces made subsequent to any other on the mere argument that they are, by their own existence, novel, and therefore worthy of discrete protection (Weinberg 2016:11). However, what does that mean for the individuals or groups who are behind these reproductions’ creation? As Weinberg argues, a lack of ownership claim or copyright of any sort not only leaves the maker with little to no acknowledgement of their role in its production, and the work dedicated to it, but also, and this is key, leaves their work open to be reproduced once more by others, without having to put in the work that made such an endeavor possible to begin with (2016:1-2).

This idea of automatic reproduction, or what Weinberg calls ‘representational scans’ means that with very little technical skill, anyone could be capable of reproducing a piece of cultural heritage of untold value, and selling it en masse to the public (Weinberg 2016:1; Cronin 1). This is, perhaps, why regulations concerning flash photography are so stringent within museums and cultural heritage institutions. Not only would unmonitored and unsanctioned digital reproduction of collection pieces potentially diminish museum attendance, but also in a more cynical vein, hamper the profiteering nature of museum’s and their attempts to hold a monopoly on the market of reproductions (Cronin 2016:6, 12, 13).

In an attempt to contravene these obstacles, many professionals have taken to modifying their scans and models to add a level of originality—hoping to meet the standards for legal copyright, or at the very least be able to negotiate some sort of contract for its reuse and monitor the trajectory of that use (Cronin 2016:10; Weinberg 2016). In more extreme cases these modifications are such that the outcome is so far removed from the original that they are considered ‘expressive’ scans—this can be seen in the use of 3D scans in the creation of abstract sculpture even—it is artwork in its own right, and worthy of being protected by copyright (Weinberg 2016:10-11).

Unfortunately, there’s still no standard for who owns these scans and models, or what recognition if any must be given to their creator in terms of dissemination. As a person working and studying within the field of digital heritage, a main tenet is that cultural heritage is not owned by one person or institution, and that it should be available to everyone—and, open access to these artefacts on a digital platform, though still under debate, unequivocally does this. However to balance that with the fact that those within this sector are also the people behind the creation of those digital models, and are not able to guide their use is something that just isn’t yet possible.

Cronin, Charles. 2016 Possession is 99% of the Law: 3D Printing, Public Domain Cultural Artifacts and Copyright. Legal Studies Research Papers 16(13):1-21.

Weinberg, Michael.  2016 3D Scanning: A World Without Copyright. Available online.

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