Art & Sculpture

Community fights to release Bust of Nefertiti 3D model licensed by Berlin’s Neus Museum

Historical artifacts have been made accessible worldwide thanks to 3D scanning and additive manufacturing. Initiatives such as Scan the World, and the Google Arts and Culture‘s Open Heritage project seek to digitally preserve cultural landmarks which can then be replicated using 3D printing.

Nonetheless, some institutions have claimed copyright over 3D files of artifacts belonging to their collections. Berlin’s Neus Museum Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection was one institution to do so with its 3D printable files of the illustrious 3364-year-old Bust of Nefertiti

Despite the availability of the 3D printable file on Scan the World since 2014, many in the 3D scanning and heritage community sought to make the data held by Neus Museum public. Thus, a three-year freedom of information effort, led by multimedia artist, Cosmo Wenman, was enacted to release the official 3D printable files from the museum’s overseer, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK).

Wenman explained in a Reason article, “The original artifact is clearly in the public domain. And copyright attaches to original works; copyrighting a copy doesn’t make sense. Especially if the original is in the public domain. I’ve put SPK’s Nefertiti scan online, exactly as I received it, under the terms of the Creative Commons license.”

A 3D render of the Bust of Nefertiti. Image via Cosmo Wenman.
A 3D render of the Bust of Nefertiti. Image via Cosmo Wenman.

“The Other Nefertiti”

3D scan data of the Bust of Nefertiti was requested in 2016 after speculation arose from a 3D model from the project “The Other Nefertiti”. This claimed that artists Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles covertly collected the data within the Neus Museum with handheld devices. Nevertheless, according to the New York Times, after this project garnered more attention, 3D scanning experts concluded that the files surfaced from “some other means” due to its high-quality. 

As one of the experts skeptical of the origins of the 3D scans, Wenman requested the files from the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, citing German freedom of information laws. This grants all an unconditional right to access official information from federal agencies.

“When [the SPK] received my records request, it acknowledged the existence of the Nefertiti scan and acknowledged that the organization was required by law to give me access to it,” continued Wenman.

“But it also declared that directly giving me copies of the scan data would threaten its commercial interests. The Egyptian Museum sells Nefertiti replicas in its gift shop, and it implied that it needs to protect that revenue to finance its ongoing digitization efforts.”

A 3D render of the bottom of the Bust of Nefertiti. Image via Cosmo Wenman.
A 3D render of the bottom of the Bust of Nefertiti. Image via Cosmo Wenman.

Licensing historical artifacts

Over time, another freedom of information request was filed for records of revenue from the sales of replicas of any artifacts, including the Bust of Nefertiti, that derived from its scans. Upon further questioning, the 3D model of Nefertiti from the SPK was released with a “CC BY-NC-SA” license placed at the base. This compels users to cite the source of the material and utilize it “for informational purposes only, not for commercial use.”

“It’s unclear which elements of their digital copy of the Bust of Nefertiti SPK imagine it has a copyright in,” added Wenman. “It has a chilling effect on the public’s lawful use of public domain works, and creates paradoxes in enforcement.” 

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Featured image shows a 3D render of the Bust of Nefertiti. Image via Cosmo Wenman.