Mmosesy most memorable art teacher in high school, a lively woman from the UK and a great artist in her own right, used to allow us great latitude in deciding on drawing and painting projects for big class projects. There were always disruptions and debates along the way, though, as someone would inevitably want to do their own version of a painted masterpiece (not allowed), copy an album cover (not allowed), or do a drawing from a book cover or a famous photograph — and you guessed it — not allowed either.

That was my first, and very clear, introduction not just to the rules of creativity in art class, but rudimentary legal issues, reinforced with the refrain “Use your own work!” All in all, the rules were pretty black and white, using legal common sense and guidance.

What about objects and works of art, especially very old ones, that are out in public though, that seem to be public domain? Is it legal to use photographs of them? Is it legal to 3D scan these and make our own 3D models? What are your thoughts? Well, if you land in hot water over them you may just have to take your chances, tell your side of the argument to the judge, and see what happens, as there simply isn’t a lot of law regarding 3D printing yet — simply because there haven’t been piles of lawsuits yet setting any precedents. (Give it time.)

This is just the type of  ‘tempest in a teapot’ that Jerry Fisher has found himself embroiled in for a number of months now with Augustana College, a private liberal arts college in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His story was brought to the forefront in a Sketchfab forum, where a number of other individuals were weighing in and becoming curious about the issue at hand.

Jerry Fisher

Jerry Fisher

Fisher decided to photograph two statues by Michelangelo which are in Sioux Falls, one in a city park and the other on the campus — and make 3D models — which he posted on social media to include Twitter, Google+, and even Thingiverse, where he uploaded preliminary model of Moses. He was promptly asked to take the Moses model down by Augustana College who felt they had propriety over the statues and supposedly, the copyrights.

The two statues, of David and Moses, are indeed bronze casts of original masterpieces by Michelangelo, and were gifted to Augustana back in the 1970s. Fisher decided to take on the considerable challenge of photographing these outdoor statues to replicate them in 3D, which he did so after generating thousands of photographs for the purpose of 3D modelling.

The college, associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, stated they were “uncomfortable” with Fisher’s 3D models and concerned that with the digital images out there in the public, they could be used inappropriately. They did hint that he was legally in the wrong, stating that their legal department considered the statues to be copyrighted.

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Jerry Fisher’s 3D Model of Michelangelo’s Moses

Fisher was never actually contacted by the college’s legal department, but continued on his quest to right things, and to figure out what was truly legal — or not. As far as copyright infringement, there seems to be a big question mark with 3D scanning and printing of ‘things.’

Fisher took the fight a bit further to the city, where he was informed that the photos were probably not a problem, but transforming them into models (especially if they were to be sold) could be a copyright violation. Attempting to get the issue of contemporary photogrammetry into the light, Fisher pointed out that the statues are in the public domain — not to mention their age — or true owner of the copyright on them. What is the actual law on what can and cannot be done? After getting nowhere with the entities who started the potential battle, Fisher really had no answers.

The preliminary legal spat — and question — caught the attention of a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., however, called Public Knowledge. They confirmed Fisher’s common sense approach to the entire debacle, stating that it did for the most part just seem to be bullying from Augustana, due to their level of discomfort regarding the digitization of the statues, and hoping to fend off any potential embarrassment should the models be used inappropriately. They also pointed out that there are already precedents out there regarding the use of, specifically, Michelangelo’s work that would allow Fisher’s work to stand, according to Fisher’s recount of the conversation.

Fisher has since, again, contacted the city of Sioux Falls, as well as the Mayor’s office, with all of his information, and although he received what sounded like a fairly noncommittal response, it was more on the positive side, and he never heard back from them. While that particular event may or may not have come to a close, it’s just one of many that is bound to crop up through the following years as technology and creativity progress even further.

Now, whether the college was truly reading the law thoroughly or just attempting to bully Jerry Fisher is somewhat unclear, but there is a reason that intellectual property law attorneys and even their paralegals make the super big bucks — it’s complicated, folks.

While 3D printing has maintained a fairly heroic position in the news and in most sectors, there have been some controversial headlines, most having to do with the 3D printing of guns and what type of regulation should be required, if any. There is still a lot of gray area yet to be defined — and of course, all those areas yet to be defined, along with the ones that already are, continue to fuel the thriving legal system, behemoth that it is. With the leaps and bounds occurring in technical advances almost weekly, it would seem, certainly some fundamental changes and groundbreaking cases are sure to occur.

What are your thoughts on these legal issues? Discuss in the Sioux City Maker Asked to Remove 3D Models of Michelangelo’s Statues forum over at 3DPB.com.

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