Get a lawyer, David

January 29, 1999

Michelangelo's David is taller than textbooks say. When Marc Levoy and his team from Stanford University turned up to scan the statue with lasers for a 3D digital archive of sculptures, he had to redesign his gantry. But that could be a lot cheaper than rewriting his contract. This work of scholarship will create a valuable piece of intellectual property. If the legalities are not nailed down, it could all end in tears.

In an ideal world, the Galleria dell'Accademia, Professor Levoy and Stanford University would all make lots of money and not squabble over their shares. The digital archive would be freely available for education and research. It would be offered at a fair price to commercial organisations wishing to include some Michelangelo imagery in a commercial,a 3D modelling software package or a multimedia encyclopedia.

The possibilities do not end there. In Titanic, digitally created people strolled the digitally created decks. A stolen David, created by computer, could adorn a film villain's hideout. David could take on Goliath in a video game. Publications could show familiar sculptures from fresh angles of the virtual camera. For all these uses, a fee could be charged.

Meanwhile, the internet has begun to erode television viewing time. Among other online activities, people are spending hours in 3D virtual communities, some of them the size of southern California, or playing 3D combat games. Building and decorating virtual worlds is one of the knowledge industries of the future. But it relies on the past for raw material and cultural reference. In a recent experiment in free building in cyberspace, one builder chose to replicate Stonehenge.

Commercial exploitation raises questions of taste. The Italian curators balk at mass-produced Davids adorning suburban gardens. They might be queasy at David appearing as a virtual actor in an erotic movie. But the way to control tasteless use is to choose your customers and limit their rights, not to abjure all commercial exploitation.

This is no time for slingshots. David needs a good lawyer.

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