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In honor of SOPA-blackout day, here’s my sideways contribution to the confusion.
Is this blog post in potential violation of copyrights or trademarks? I don’t honestly know. The (great!) image below was made by Lee Griggs and Tomás Fernández Serrano at SolidAngle, the company that develops the Arnold renderer, used by (among others) Sony Imageworks for CG effects in their films.
So, let’s see, some issues with this post and image are:
He used Mineways to export the model from a Minecraft world. A texture pack terrain image is applied to the model. So, if you use a texture pack from some copyrighted source (which all of them are, by default; sadly, few declare themselves Creative Commons in any form), are you violating their copyright? What if, like in the image below, you can’t actually make out any details of the textures?
This Minecraft world was built by a lot of people – are their models somehow protected? In what ways? Over on the left there I see Mario and Luigi. These are trademarked figures (or copyrighted?). Are these illegal to build in your own Minecraft world? What about public, shared worlds where others see them? Or is it fine under good faith, since it’s non-commercial? Would selling the print then be illegal? How big does Mario have to be to infringe? Is it the building of them or the photographing of these models that’s illegal? Or is this a “public virtual space” where taking photos is fine? I can make some guesses, but don’t know.
Similarly, if one of the builders used a voxelizer like binvox to build a model from a commercially-sold mesh, would that be OK? At what resolution of voxels does the original mesh and the voxelized version become close enough for a violation to occur? Luckily, the model itself is just a bunch of cubes, and cubes themselves are not something protected by any laws, right? (well, Marchings Cubes were, but that’s a different story.) If I could download their mesh, could I legally use it? Probably not commercially, since it’s the arrangement of the cubes that’s important.
You’re saying to yourself that this is “tempest in a teapot” stuff, with no real likelihood anyone would demand a takedown of fan art. I remember the early years of the commercial internet, where Lucasfilm did just that, endlessly ordering takedowns of unauthorized Star Wars images, models, etc. (I guess they still do?). I even understand it: I’ve heard trademark must be actively defended to retain it. Most interesting of all, there was a United Kingdom Supreme Court ruling last summer involving Lucasfilm: the court ruled that 3D models are covered by “design rights” by default, giving them 3 to 10 year protection, or 25 years if registered. Stormtrooper helmets were judged “utilitarian”, not sculptures, and so are not covered by these rights. Fascinating! But that’s the UK – what if I order a stormtrooper helmet from the UK for delivery to the US? I assume it’s an illegal import.
Finally, am I breaking some law by including this image in my post, using the URL of the original post‘s image? I attribute the authors, but the image is copyright, explicitly shown in the Flickr version. I think I’d invoke Fair Use, since I’m making a point (oh, and that Fair Use link won’t work for a few more hours, with Wikipedia blacked out). Confusing.
With images, textures, and models referencing each other and all sloshing around the web, what copyright, trademark, and all the rest means gets pretty hazy, pretty quick. I’m guessing most of the questions I pose have definitive answers (or maybe not!), but I know I’m part of the vast majority that aren’t sure of those answers. Which is probably mostly fine (except when corporations overstep their bounds), since our culture is much richer for all the reuse that most of us do without any financial gain and without worrying about it.
Update: I just noticed this article on Gamasutra on similar issues (the difference being that the author actually knows what he’s talking about).
Another update: looking at this article during 2016, I noticed the original image is no longer on the page. However, the Wayback Machine has a copy here. I’ve grabbed a copy and so am including the image directly, to avoid having it slip away again (items on The Wayback Machine sometimes get taken down, too). I also wanted to add that, unlike a trademark, you don’t lose your copyright if you don’t defend it against every infringement – you can be selective.