What implications and opportunities should we consider when using 3D scanning or printing to create 3D digital models from our collections?

As 3D scanners and printers become more affordable, 3D modelling may increasingly be considered as a part of your heritage organisation’s digital strategy. This guide reviews key policy areas on the use and dissemination of digital assets including implications of intellectual property (IP). It also discusses the key aspects to consider when thinking about creating 3D models of your collection.

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Image courtesy of VisitBritain © Kathryn Ramsden

What implications and opportunities should we consider when using 3D scanning or printing to create 3D digital models from our collections?

1. Opportunities and challenges in using 3D technology

Creating 3D models of cultural artefacts can help to foster learning and provide new ways of engaging with heritage. The process can also offer access to resources previously denied to audiences and can help preserve fragile items.

Essentially there are two approaches to creating three dimensional assets:

  • 3D scanning is a non-contact, non-destructive technology that digitally captures the shape of physical objects and visualises them in a digital 3D space. There are many methods of undertaking 3D scanning including but not limited to photogrammetry, which is arguably the most accessible, laser-based scanning and structured light scanning.
  • 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. In an additive process, an object is created by layering material until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced cross-section of the object.

Using 3D scanning and printing in heritage organisations presents you with both challenges and implications. It can allow you to:

  • Rapidly replicate objects
  • Disseminate and share artefacts digitally and physically
  • Support repatriation
  • Enhance audience and learning programmes.

Yet at the same time, it challenges current Intellectual Property laws, requires additional digital skills and can have a significant cost.

In this resource our expert, Dr Amelia Knowlson, University of Leeds, will explore the Intellectual Property implications of 3D scanning and what you need to consider when digitalising your collection.


2. Navigating copyright laws and Creative Commons

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), copyright laws will protect the originality of a work and the creator’s right to reproduce it. This means that if copies of an original object are 3D printed without authorisation, the creator can obtain relief under copyright law.

So, if a heritage organisation has a work in their collection that is in copyright, they will need to secure permission from the owner of the work’s copyright to reproduce it.

Copyright and 3D scanning

3D scanning is more of a grey area. Many individuals believe the creation of a 3D scan would have its own copyright protection, as the author of a 3D scan must make a personal, creative, and intellectual effort to create a functionable object for either the digital or physical realm. However, at the time of creating this resource, there is no legal test to determine whether copyright would be assigned to the creator of a 3D scan if the original artefact is still in copyright.

It is also important to consider the moral implications of 3D scanning artefacts of contested origins. Heritage organisations which house artefacts stolen from their countries of origin, or where the method of acquisition is unknown, should question whether it is morally right to 3D scan these artefacts.

Copyright or Creative Commons?

Once a 3D scan has been created, the next thing to consider is what level of copyright or Creative Commons license needs to be applied to the 3D scan. Advice on applying Creative Commons can be found at Creative Commons. Examples of how Creative Commons can be applied to historical museum objects can be seen on SketchFab – Heritage. Sketchfab allows global audiences to access and make use of 3D models representing cultural heritage from around the world through virtual visits, examining 3D scans of objects and adding annotations to the models. Museums such as the British Museum apply CC Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike (CC BY-NC-SA) with a downloadable model feature on the site. This license allows users to access and use the model provided they attribute the model to the British Museum, use it for non-commercial purposes and, if any different versions are made, distribute these under the same license.


3. What to consider when digitalising your collection

Now that you have examined some ideas around 3D modelling and copyright, you might find it useful to explore an example which can help you think through how to approach this in your own organisation.

Read through the SketchFab case on 3D scanning and potential copyright infringement.  

If you are considering using 3D scanning and printing to digitalise your collection, you can use these questions to help identify potentially appropriate artefacts:

  • Is the institution the current copyright holder?
  • What reasons do you have for using 3D scanning (think about museum research/education/outreach/repatriation)?
  • Is the object’s acquisition contested?
  • Is the object culturally insensitive?
  • Is it appropriate to digitalise this artefact (think about policies of display around human remains)?
  • How will the digital object be displayed and what Creative Commons or copyright protections will be applied?


4. Key points and extra resources

The key points to take away are:

  • 3D scanning and printing can be a costly and time-consuming venture, so it is important any digital project involving this technology is embedded within the museum strategy.
  • Take time to explore whether your institution holds copyright for the artefact you wish to digitalise and always make sure you ask permission from the copyright holder before 3D scanning.
  • 3D scanning creates new opportunities to share collections, so when visualising 3D scans think carefully about accessibility. Allowing audiences to download, share and even 3D print artefacts encourages new forms of audience engagement.

Further resources

More help here

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Creating 3D digital models of museum collection objects

The Portland Museum is dedicated to working with its local community to protect and promote the unique heritage of the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Over the past five years, the museum has used advances in digital technology across the arts and heritage sectors to create new ways for people to engage with its collections. This resource explains how the museum trained and supported volunteers to produce 3D digital models of items from its collection.

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How to assess the future digital skills of your heritage organisation

Staying up-to-date with the latest technological opportunities is a time consuming but important task. This resource outlines some key areas where knowledge and skills development may be important for your future work. Useful resources and sites are also provided to support you in keeping up-to-date.

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The pros and cons of switching to free and open-source digital tools and software

Open-source software and creative commons-licensed materials offer important opportunities for the smaller organisation to enhance their digital capabilities. But are there drawbacks with such free resources? This guide provides definitions and examples along with a review of what to consider when using open-source and creative commons software and materials.


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3D Collections Content creation Creative commons Digital tools IP
Published: 2022
Resource type: Articles


More help here

Digital Heritage Hub is managed by Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with The Heritage Digital Consortium and The University of Leeds. It has received Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and National Lottery funding, distributed by The Heritage Fund as part of their Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. Digital Heritage Hub is free and answers small to medium sized heritage organisations most pressing and frequently asked digital questions.

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