NewYorkUniversity
LawReview
Current Issue

Volume 95, Number 4

October 2020

Combatting Copyright Overreach: Keeping 3D Representations of Cultural Heritage in the Public Domain

Linnea Dale Pittman

Three-dimensional (3D) scanning technology presents cultural organizations with new opportunities to share their collections with a wider audience online, and conserve and archive art objects and antiquities for safekeeping. However, this technology can also present legal challenges when institutions like museums assert ownership, in particular employing copyright notices, over digital copies of public domain art and antiquities in their collections. The public domain comprises the collection of shared works that are free from legal barriers imposed by copyright law. When institutions attach copyright notices to public domain works, the legal language, even if unenforceable in court, chills the public’s use of these scans for far-ranging educational, artistic, and commercial purposes. This Note examines the current uses of 3D technology by cultural institutions and analyzes the current doctrine guiding copyright of digital models. It then discusses some of the reasons why, despite the best reading of the caselaw, cultural institutions continue to assert ownership over and restrict access to 3D models of public domain art. This Note proposes an American analogue to Article 14 of the European Union’s Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. The proposed amendment to the Copyright Act would provide needed clarity to cultural institutions and the public, affirming that public domain works cannot receive copyright protection when reproduced in a digital format. A clear statement rule would reduce the chilling effect by discouraging copyright notices and restrictive terms of use on digital copies of public domain art and antiquities, in turn encouraging more institutions to provide open access to their digital collections.