3D Printing, Matisse, and the Arbitrariness of Copyright Terms

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This sculpture is in the public domain in the US but not in France. Why?


Artist Cosmo Wenman has been making something of a splash lately by taking detailed 3D scans of sculptures and then re-printing them with a 3D printer and posting them for others on Thingiverse.  But one of the side effects of his project is to throw some light on the fundamental arbitrariness of copyright terms.

From a copyright standpoint, scanning sculptures is no different then copying them in any other way.  If the sculpture is still protected by copyright, you probably need permission to make a copy.  If the sculpture is in the public domain, you can copy (and modify) it to your heart’s content.

This means that determining if a work is in the public domain plays a big part in Wenman’s work.  And that has brought him face to face with the madness that is copyright terms.

Calculating copyright status for works within the United States is complicated enough that a number of multi-variable charts and websites have popped up to help walk you through it.  In order to get the status correct, you must know the date that the work was created and, depending on that date, how the work was first published, where it was first published, and when (or if) the creator died.

For his most recent scan of Matisse bronzes Wenman figured out that the 1909 bronze relief was safely in the public domain in the US.  But, of course, things are never that easy.

Wenman wanted to bring his increasingly popular show on the road and reached out to a gallery in France.  But the gallery balked.  The over 100 year old Matisse bronze was in the public domain in the US, but what about France?  In France the bronze was still protected by copyright.  That means that in France Wenman’s scans, which were made without permission of the Matisse estate, are infringing on copyright.

Now, the point of this post is not to debate the relative merits of US copyright term compared to French copyright term.  Or to argue for or against some sort of universal term of protection. 

Instead, it is simply to point out that there is no “natural” term of copyright protection.  The protection that any one country grants for copyright has a high level of randomness.  Even with the Berne Convention setting some sort of international guidelines for the protection of new works, we are awash in a world of works relying on all sorts of lengths of protection.  Which undermines claims that copyright “must” have some sort of length of protection in order to be reasonable or just.

 

Image courtesy Cosmo Wenman. Be sure to check out this post where he goes into much greater detail about his process, what he is up to, and how his work is impacted by copyright terms.

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