Charles Cronin’s paper ‘Possession is 99% of the Law: 3D Printing, Public
Domain Cultural Artifacts and Copyright’ provides an in-depth discussion of existing copyright issues around photographs and the status of 3D replicas of cultural artefacts in copyright law. The paper delves into questions surrounding the restriction of access to and reproduction of cultural artefacts. This is the area which I am interested in discussing.
In the paper, Cronin examines the primary reasons which have been put forward for the “hyperownership” of public domain cultural works. These are the protection of the prestige the person/institution in which the object resides (18) and the protection of the physical integrity and reputation of the object (19). He refutes these arguments by demonstrating that the prestige of the Morgan Library has not been compromised by the public being (largely) unaware of its ownership of the original manuscript of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony (18), arguing that reproduction of a cultural artefact “in which the work is defaced or derogated” does not damage the integrity of the original manifestation of the work (21). The question, he feels, is whether owners of such artefacts should exert restrictive controls around access and reproduction (22).
The restriction of access to cultural objects prohibits the freedom of information. If the artefact is suitably protected and is at no risk from being publicly accessible or the process of digitisation, then the question must be asked, why is there a reluctance to make digitised copies of such artefacts freely available? People would still wish to visit museums and such institutions in order to have the experience of seeing an artefact in person, yet those who find themselves unable to do so for one reason or another would also have access to a replica for study and out of general interest. Cronin argues that making such replicas publicly available would also serve to enhance the reputation of the institution which possesses the original (19). In this way, the institution and public would both benefit from the availability of replicas, while the original artefact would remain protected.
The fact that much of the restriction on reproduction is due not to concerns around protecting the artefact but based on a fear of profit loss is objectionable. To restrict the production and distribution of 3D scans of artefacts is as prohibitive as restricting access to printed material by imposing a fee on reproduction, a practice in which some institutions engage. Restricting such replication is harmful not only to public knowledge and awareness of history and culture, but also to public perception of the holding institution. It is also arguable that making 3D scans of objects available online would serve to encourage the public to visit institutions in order to see these objects first hand, the experience being as valued by some as the information. In conclusion, the availability of 3D scan technology has the potential to be of great benefit to traditional institutions, but only if they are willing to utilise it and permit others to do so too.