Good News: Replicas of 16th-Century Sculptures Are Not Off-Limits for 3-D Printers

Cosmo Wenman’s 3-D capture of a detail of Mary from Michelangelo’s Pietà, taken from a cast molded from the original.

Image courtesy of Cosmo Wenman

The functional possibilities of 3-D printing are well known. After all, we’re printing wrenches in space now. Yet the technology’s artistic potential may be equally significant. Almost every physical object, from a spoon to Degas’ famous dancer sculptures, can be scanned and uploaded onto the Internet as a file, ready for download by anyone with a desktop 3-D printer. But like the digitization of music and books before it, the migration of objects of art and design online brings with it the baggage of America’s frustrating intellectual-property regime.

A cast of Michelangelo’s famous 16th-century sculpture of Moses sits on the campus of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Jerry Fisher, who lives in the area, decided to create a 3-D printable version of the artwork using photogrammetry—analyzing 2-D photos of an object and turning them into a digital 3-D model.

Only a few days after posting a downloadable file of Michelangelo’s Moses on the 3-D printing website Thingiverse in the fall of 2014, Fisher says he was contacted by a representative of Augustana College. They requested that he take it down, he told me, citing fuzzy copyright and ownership concerns. Despite feeling certain that the work was in the public domain, Fisher complied. Neither Augustana College nor the city of Sioux Falls ever made a formal legal claim, but the incident attracted the attention of artist Cosmo Wenman, who has specialized in creating 3-D scans and models of classic sculpture.

(Update, Jan. 26, 2014, 1:30 p.m.: Peggy Kapusta, ​director of online communications at ​Augustana College, told me over email: “​​Mr. Fisher did not seek the permission of Augustana College nor the City of Sioux Falls prior to pursuing the 3D reconstruction technology or before offering [the 3-D model] to others. … In October 2014, we reached out to Mr. Fisher to express our concern over his actions in light of the fact that he did not seek permission from the College, the City of Sioux Falls or the families of the artist and/or the Fawicks [the family who donated the statue]. At this point, Mr. Fisher made the decision to un-publish the 3D image file.”)

To clarify the legalities of the case, Wenman approached Michael Weinberg, vice president of Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit concerned with copyright law, in December 2014. It’s a baseless concern on its face, Weinberg told me. It’s part of the kind of kneejerk assumption, common these days, that you need to get permission to do anything. As he wrote in a recent blog post about the incident, “Representatives for the college had a vague concern that the scanning might possibly infringe on someone’s copyright or trademark or something, and that somehow the college could be implicated.” The reality is that there was no copyright when the sculpture was first created, and there’s certainly no copyright that covers the century-old sculpture now. The Sioux Falls Moses, itself a replica of the Italian original, is free for anyone to rethink, iterate, and 3-D–print.

Overzealous colleges aside, Weinberg told me that the public domain is a foreign concept to many people, while copyright looms large over our digital activities, 3-D printing or otherwise. “Twenty years ago, your average person didn’t know anything about copyright law,” he added. “One of the Internet’s lessons was that copyright is everywhere. That’s a reasonable shorthand to have, but it becomes problematic.” For a lot of people, there’s a vague alarm bell that goes off when copying something online. Given 3-D printing’s capacity to create high-quality replicas, this reticence can result in a chilling effect on how people engage with works of art that are free for all to reimagine.

Cosmo Wenman is familiar with the legal confusion that arises over 3-D printing artistic works. He regularly creates high-fidelity 3-D scans of classic works of sculpture that are in the public domain. His strategy, he told me, is to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Publishing his own files of works like the head of a horse of Selene from the British Museum’s Parthenon collection or the Getty’s Caligula on Thingiverse is worthwhile in its own right, he said. But he’s also trying to help create awareness and demand for museums to release their own high-quality 3-D scans to the public. “Photography has been around for a century, but museums are just now starting to put high-resolution photos online,” he added. “We can’t let them take another 100 years to decide their policy on 3-D printing data.”

The bigger problem may in fact be deciding where to start. The public domain artwork available to scan online is vast, Wenman said. “Just about everything in the British Museum is unambiguously in the public domain. Millions and millions of cultural objects should be scanned.” Some museums and galleries are beginning to take the initiative. The Smithsonian has been making 3-D scans of certain objects available for download for a number of years, and the Baltimore Museum of Art announced plans in 2014 to release a scan of Rodin’s famous The Thinker to the public.

Despite our modern aversion to “copying,” the act of reproducing sculpture is nothing new. Museums have been created high-quality casts of their sculptural work for centuries, as Wenman pointed out. So many of the originals that we cherish today are themselves copies or derivatives of things lost. By creating 3-D scans, Wenman, Fisher, and anyone else with the right software, are able to access the topology of ancient works without jumping through hoops to get into the Louvre itself. On Thingiverse and other 3-D printing platforms, people are uploading scans of old inscriptions from Joshua Tree National Park, the Coronation Stone of Motecuhzoma II, and even George Washington plaques. For many, the opportunity to touch and experiment with their own version of a classic work may only kindle their desire to one day see the real thing.

Authenticity, after all, is a malleable idea. Those who complain about the ineffable feeling of standing in front of the original work should consider that Wenman’s version of the Dancing Faun of Pompeii, clad in bright red filament, feels more vital in many ways than the original—as if being 3-D printed had given the ancient sculpture devilish new character.

Creative possibilities aside, the legal challenges that will face the 3-D printing of artistic objects are just beginning to unfold. “Be as aware of copyright as with other things, but don’t be more aware,” Weinberg said. “There’s nothing special about 3-D scanning or printing that gives it extra copyright protections.”