3D Printing: Cultural Property as Intellectual Property

Cronin, Charles

Long before the onset of the now-emblematic quarrel between England and Greece over the Parthenon marbles, nations and tribes have squabbled over the extraterritorial transfer of objects of purported cultural significance. Over the past few decades, however, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of cultural property repatriation claims, mostly targeting U.S. collections. The value of cultural artifacts is generated largely by the intellectual expression they manifest. Digital technologies make increasingly possible the creation of reproductions of even three-dimensional artifacts, which are indistinguishable from the originals. This development challenges our attributing value to the “aura” of the original renderings of tangible cultural artifacts. Stripped of their auras, the worth of these objects devolves to the sum of the value of the physical materials deployed in their creation, and that ascribed to the perceptible intellectual expression they contain. If we were to perceive cultural artifacts fundamentally as works of information rather than of tangible property, the location of the original instantiations of them would be of little significance. Three-dimensional technologies might soon permit source nations to retain the essential intellectual value of cultural artifacts found within their borders, while simultaneously capitalizing upon sales of the originals to collectors who will pay for their “aura.”


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Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts

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November 21, 2016