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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.


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If you care about open access to research (and you should), there are several actions (some quite time-critical) that you can take to protect it.

First, some background (if you’re already familiar with this issue and just want to know what to do about it you can skip to the “1,2,3” list at the end and read the rest later).

In 2008, legislation was passed in the United States requiring all National Institute of Health (NIH) funded researchers to submit their papers to an openly available repository within a year of publication. The (perfectly reasonable) logic was that since the American public had paid for the research with their taxes, they had a right to see it without going through paywalls. If anything, the flaws in the legislation were that it did not cover all Federally-funded research, and that it still allowed publishers to lock papers up for one year.

Of course, scientific publishers (with a “researchers do all the work, we take possession of the results and sell them back to researchers” business model that resembles nothing so much as the “the sun grows the food, the ants pick the food, the grasshoppers eat the food” motto from Pixar’s film “A Bug’s Life”) hated this and immediately tried to stop it. They were unable to do so, which is very fortunate since the open access repository, PubMed Central, was a huge boon to everyone from researchers, to physicians, to patients trying to keep up with research into their diseases.

About a year later, the US Government started a “Request For Information” (RFI) process to figure out if this policy should be expanded to other Federally-funded research. Of course, for-profit scientific publishers like Elsevier filed lengthy letters against this. One would think that non-profit professional organizations like the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) would not have such a short-sighted, rent-seeking position. Surely they would put the advancement of human knowledge ahead of their revenue streams? Well, no. Perhaps not so surprising, given their previous actions.

Fast forward to January 2012, when another legislative attack on Federal open access mandates was launched – the Research Works Act. In the charming bought-and-paid for tradition of US legislation, this was written by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), a lobbying group whose members have made large contributions to the campaigns of the two U.S. Representatives introducing the bill – a fact that I am sure had no influence whatsoever on their support. This bill makes it illegal for the government to mandate open-access; it would shut down PubMed Central (sorry, cancer patients! we’ve got revenue streams to protect!)  as well as making any similar initiatives impossible. The timing of this bill was especially suspect, since it was launched a few days before the deadlines for another set of RFIs regarding open access. This odious bill launched a well-deserved internet shitstorm; our blog is relatively late to this party.

Sadly (but not surprisingly), it turns out that the ACM is a member of the AAP. One might hope that this was merely a case of the AAP doing something that some of its member organizations disagree with, but the ACM seems to like the Research Works Act just fine. You’ll like that last link; it’s one of the finest examples of disingenuous and circular reasoning I’ve seen in a while. Just to put a cherry on top of this shit sundae, it turns out that the AAP is also a supporter of SOPA (I’m now afraid to hear ACM’s own position on SOPA).

At this point, you’re most likely reading through a red veil of righteous rage. Fortunately, there are things you can do about this; some need to be done now.

  1. If you are a researcher or someone who uses research, email responses to the two RFIs from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy concerning access to Federally-funded research (one regarding peer-reviewed scholarly publications and one regarding research data). The deadline is in just three days. Although these are US government RFIs, my understanding is that you don’t have to be a US citizen or reside in the USA to respond. Harvard’s RFI response is worth reading for reference, though it is quite long.
  2. If you are a US Citizen, let your representatives know how you feel about this legislation. The Alliance for Taxpayer Access has the information you need to do so.
  3. If you are an ACM member, let the ACM know how you feel about their support for this act and the ACM’s membership of the AAP; be polite! The ACM bureaucracy is complex, but as far as I can tell the most appropriate people to contact are: Alain Chesnais, ACM President (, Bernard Rous, ACM Director of Publications ([email protected]), and Cameron Wilson, ACM Director of Public Policy ([email protected]). If you are a member of some other professional organization that belongs to AAP, contact it as well.

It’s time to let the scientific publishers know that things are going to change. From now on, the ants pick the food, the ants eat the food, and the grasshoppers leave!

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