Wednesday, June 22

Michaelangelo's David and the Abuse of Copyright Law

At the beginning of the 1800s, the Elgin Marbles were removed from Greece for Britain. The outrage over this cultural theft continues.

"The request for the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is not made by the Greek government in the name of the Greek nation or of Greek history. It is made in the name of the cultural heritage of the world and with the voice of the mutilated monument itself, that cries out for its marbles to be returned."Today we face a similar theft of our cultural heritage.

The coverstory of the June 2005 edition of Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery deals with the difficult question of DRM for 3D images (Protecting 3D Graphics Content). In particular, the authors, David Koller and Mark Levoy, are concerned with preventing "piracy" of hi-resolution 3D models of cultural heritage works such as Michelangelo's David.

For example, our Stanford Digital Michelangelo Project has developed a high-resolution digital archive of 10 of Michelangelo's large statues, including the David. These statues represent the artistic patrimony of Italy's cultural institutions, and our contract with the Italian authorities permits distribution of the 3D models only to established scholars for noncommercial use. Though everyone involved would like the models to be available for any constructive purpose, the digital 3D model of the David would quickly be pirated if it were distributed without protection; simulated marble replicas would be manufactured outside the provisions of the parties authorizing creation of the model.

Digital archives of archaeological artifacts are another example of cultural heritage 3D models that could require piracy protection. Curators of such artifact collections increasingly turn to 3D digitization as a way to preserve and widen scholarly use of their holdings, but they often want strict control over the manner of that use of the 3D data and to guard against theft. An example of such a collection is our Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Project ( we've undertaken with Italian archaeological officials to digitize more than a thousand marble fragments of an ancient Roman map and make them publically available through a Web-based database—provided the 3D models have adequate protection. [sidebar, footnotes omitted]

Piracy!? Theft!? I do not blame the authors of the paper, who are forced to agree with the relevant authorities in order to gain access to the works in the first place (and it is better that the works are scanned than not at all). I do blame the cultural authorities who dare to claim a gatekeeper function to the digital reproductions of these works that are the cultural heritage of the world.

These works are not "owned" by their representative cultural institutions, but held in trust for all mankind: a position of responsibility with a duty to preserve our common cultural heritage.

A secondary duty is to provide open access to these works, consistent with the duty to preserve. It is this right of access that these claims of "piracy" and "theft" abrogate.

When digital scans can provide everything but physical access, the true pirates and thieves are those who would deny such access. They may do so out of a misguided belief that they require such control in order to fund themselves, but this only means that they are essentially holding access to our cultural heritage hostage.

Elgin's justification for removing the Parthenon Marbles was to preserve them. Those who would use the same arguments to justify preventing open access to digital reproductions of our common cultural heritage are not much better.