Copyright in a Technological World: 3D Scanning

In the technological age that we live in, new technologies are used in all walks of life. Many people have become seduced by all this new technology and are afraid of being left behind if they do not keep up with the newest gadgets and updates (Huggett, J 82).  Professions such as archaeology have made use of these technological advancements to enhance their research. With these new developments in what Huggett describes as “a microcomputer revolution” (81), archaeologists have new tools at their disposal that can offer them many new perspectives on their work. However with these new developments, especially in the area of 3D printing, there are questions being raised surrounding the copyrighting of 3D scans and models.

A 3D scan could be compared to a 2D image or photograph. The researcher making the model has not created the original artefact just as a photographer may not have created the scene but merely captured it. However, if the photograph was deemed to be a creative work rather than simply documenting a scene, it could be eligible to be copyrighted (Weinberg, Michael 4). In the case of a 3D scan it is even more complex. There must be an author to grant the copyright to but if the 3D scan is created in a team setting, it is unclear who the author is (Weinberg 4). If some photographs can be considered a result of a creative process then can the same be applied to a 3D scan? The work of Sophie Kahn is deemed eligible for copyright because it is a creative representation rather than a documentation of the sculptures she scans (Weinberg 10). However, if someone else makes a replica scan of the same sculpture it is not eligible to be copyrighted.

For 3D scans that are not eligible for copyright, contracts and licenses are used by public museums for public domain cultural works and their 3D replicas (Cronin, Charles Patrick Desmond 11). These contracts can give the museums control over the artefacts in both a conservation and commercial sense. The items themselves may not be copyrighted, but the cultural institutions have certain legal rights regarding them. There is an argument here concerning the commercialisation of cultural heritage artefacts that should be made available to the public. Does 3D scanning and printing not make it easier for audiences to create and own personal replicas of historical artefacts? If this is so, then the objects should not be protected by a copyright in order to allow the public full access to them.

Both Weinberg and Cronin raise the issue of the creativity surrounding 3D scanning and the making of 3D models. The idea that the original artefact is the creative piece and the 3D scan is used simply to document it omits any element of creative process in the making of the scan. In order to be granted copyright, the item must be deemed creative and these replicas of artefacts are not considered creative works. This raises the question of how to determine if something is creative or not and who has the right the decide this.

“No matter how hard, work alone does not get you copyright protection” (Weinberg 3). The issues around copyright and 3D scans comes down to creativity and not the time and care taken to create the scans and models. Perhaps there is room for development and, in the future, more 3D scans may meet the criteria to be granted copyright. As of now however, you’re not likely to obtain copyright for your 3D scans of historical artefacts any time soon.



Cronin, Charles Patrick Desmond. “Possession Is 99% of the Law: 3D Printing, Public Domain Cultural Artifacts & Copyright.” SSRN, 15 Feb. 2016, Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.

Huggett, J. “Archaeology and the New Technological Fetishism.” Archeologia e Calcolatori XV, 2004, pp. 81-92., Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.

Weinberg, Michael. “3D Scanning: A World Without Copyright.” Shapeways, May 2016, pp. 1-16., Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.

One thought on “Copyright in a Technological World: 3D Scanning

  1. I wonder if there should be some sort of in-between stage here—a bridge between creativity and mere reproduction, and what that means for the rights of the person who is behind a 3D scan or model’s creation. It seems to me that although both Weinberg and Cronin are correct in their assertion that copyright cannot be applied in the cases of as Weinberg puts it, ‘representational’ scans—ie. those that are created for the sheer purpose of digitizing an artefact or object to its exact detail, that doesn’t mitigate the fact that work went behind that capture. To photograph an architecturally complex structure in say black and white involves some skill and decision making on the part of the photographer, whether it be lighting, framing, etc., but its still a matter of capturing the structure in front of them—and yet many photographs of this nature are considered art, and in their recognition as such, and perhaps due to their place in the consciousness of the public, are warranted a copyright. At the same time however, there’s still a problem with the fact that while as you say these scans should be available to the public, its impossible to know that a member of that public isn’t producing a model for their own interest but for profit, and in doing so, undermining and profiting on the work put forth by the creator of that model. That doesn’t mean that I think all representational scans should be warranted copyright, far from it, but it also just reflects on how arbitrary the notions of ‘creative’ and ‘original’, or (re)production and ‘production’ actually are. 3D Scans might not be artistic in the traditional sense of the term, but to me this debate is fundamentally a reiteration of the (re)production vs. production issue: are something like 3D scans truly a reproduction of the object in question if they aren’t imbued with all of its characteristics, if they’re not exact, or are they simply the product of the technician’s impression of that object.

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