Technoheritage has a property problem

"Technoheritage" is the movement to preserve vulnerable history through digitization: making detailed scans of precious places, objects and works from which they can be recovered if they are destroyed by war, climate, or other disaster.

But technoheritage has a property problem: the cultural institutions that undertake them are under pressure to act like businesses, to value the works they own according to their resale value and the dollars they can bring in through admission and access charges. Add to the mix the ambiguous, bloated realm of global copyright law and you have institutions that are laying copyright claims to works that have been in the public domain for hundreds, thousands, even millions of years, simply because they have faithfully reproduced them in digital form (copyright is only awarded to original creative work, not to verbatim copies, no matter how hard you have to work to make them).

As law professor Sonya Katyal (previously) and Simone Ross explain, this sets the technoheritage movement on a collision course with the public interest that museums are supposed to serve.

Even universities that champion innovation — like Stanford University, which has spent the last 10-plus years building a 3D scan of Michelangelo’s “David” — strongly restrict access to their “David” datasets to only “published” or “established” researchers and scholars, prohibiting researchers from circulating the datasets to their classes or posting the information on the Internet. (Researchers are also admonished, as legal researcher Charles Cronin reports, to “keep your renderings and other uses of the data in good taste,” since the artifacts are the “proud artistic patrimony of Italy.”)

Something different is happening here. When cultural property is converted to a 3D print or rendered in virtual or augmented reality, it starts to look and feel like other forms of intellectual property. But are these disputes reruns of the same IP disputes we’ve already seen in the emergence of other, new technologies? Or are we seeing something different where cultural heritage is concerned? Will all these advances in technology have the same impact on museums, archaeology, and other preservation industries as digitization had on the music or film industry? What are the unintended consequences not yet anticipated on the public domain, our vast swath of cultural knowledge that is already open for all?

Can technoheritage be owned? [Sonia K. Katyal and Simone C. Ross/Boston Globe]

(Image: Global Non-Rigid Alignment of 3-D Scans)