Intellectual property pervades all aspects of commercial life – even some of those you would least expect. For instance, the topic of ‘copyrighted dinosaurs’.
It was recently reported that an auction of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, nicknamed “Shen”, was cancelled just days before it was due to go under the hammer. The auction was set to be conducted by the British auction house Christie’s on 30 November 2022 in Hong Kong. However, following concerns raised by a well-known palaeontologist, Pete Larson, the auction was cancelled. The concerns raised by Larson outlined that some of “Shen’s” missing bones were supplemented with castings (bone replicas) that bore a remarkable likeness to the replica bones used in another T-rex, “Stan”.
It is very rare for complete dinosaurs to be found, in fact, no complete T-rex has ever been found. Therefore, it is not uncommon to supplement the discovered skeletal fossil with artificial castings - for the sake of completeness. Every completed T-rex display in the world is a combination of real and artificial bones. Any IP in question would likely only relate to the artificial portion of the specimen – which may be regarded as an artistic work, akin to a sculpture or the like.
Whilst “Stan” was sold for $31.8m (£26.8m) on 6 October 2020 the IP rights associated with the casted or artificial bones of “Stan” remain the property of The Black Hills Institute of which Pete Larson is the president of. The Black Hills Institute sells copies of “Stan” to collectors. Therefore, the allegation that “Shen” comprised castings with a remarkable likeness to those used in “Stan” is a serious one indeed. It is also one that The Black Hills Institute has pursued and settled before. In 2010, The Black Hills Institute filed an $8.2m (£6.9m) lawsuit alleging that Fort Peck Palaeontology wrongfully reproduced copyrighted portions of Dinosaurs “Sue” and “Stan”. These reproduced castings were then incorporated into Fort Peck Palaeontology’s own “Peck’s Rex”.
Potential copyright infringement may have been at issue in this instance too. The power of IP is shown by the ability of the Black Hills Institute to raise this matter, and for the sale of “Shen” to then be halted.
Meissner Bolte is uninvolved in any legal matter discussed above and has taken the facts discussed from publicly available reporting.
Source material: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/nov/21/christies-cancels-t-rex-skeleton-auction-after-doubts-raised