Science, Art and Gregory Paul

Freelance paleoartist, researcher and author Gregory Paul has recently issued what amounts to a Cease and Desist to illustrators making use of his skeletal restorations of dinosaurs in paid projects. Paul argues that when other artists use his reconstructions,”often but not always the result is that other’s work possesses the ‘Greg Paul look”, and that this is a violation of copyright which has hindered his ability to secure commissions. Paul’s statement can be seen here, with  rebuttals here, and here. I would also encourage reading the thoughtful responses to the issue by artists and others in the paleontological community on the DML archives.

Torvosaurus by Gregory Paul. Image borrowed from http://www.kheper.net.

Gregory Paul is of course one of the most influential individuals working on dinosaurs today. His work, particularly in Predatory Dinosaurs of the World, is probably the most frequently cited inspiration in my generation of paleophiles (perhaps because it isn’t cool to say Jurassic Park anymore). In particular, his series of intensively researched skeletal restorations (representing virtually every dinosaur known from sufficient material) are ubiquitous resources for paleontologists, and are a beloved resource among professional and hobbyist dinosaur artists. Even when his reconstructions are not directly utilized, the white-bones-on-black-outline presentation and one-foot-raised posture (see above) created by Paul have become an unofficial standard.

Now Paul is telling us that playtime is over. He has stated in no uncertain terms that creating dinosaur art based on his reconstructions without his consent and compensation is a copyright violation. The skeletal restorations require extensive research, travel to collections, original photography, and cross-scaling (which I won’t pretend to understand). Moreover, Paul has stated that other artists need to start doing the same, personally researching every dinosaur illustrated from the ground up, rather than relying disproportionately on his work.

I think Paul makes many fair points. In particular, the practice of producing uncredited Gregory Paul knockoffs at low prices is problematic, and his financial concerns are valid. Paul is in a (as far as I know) unique position among individuals producing quality paleontological restorations in that he does not have a university or museum position; his art is his business and livelihood, a fact which should be respected.

Giraffatitan and Ceratosaurus by Gregory Paul. Image borrowed from http://sodinossauros.blogspot.com.

Nevertheless, although I have complete sympathy for Paul’s predicament, I do have to take issue with some of his arguments, explained below.

1. I am concerned that Paul has framed the argument by defining paleoart as  a commercial commodity, and not as art or science. Everybody needs to make a living and romanticized ideals only get you so far, but science (and art) is all about sharing. By performing and publishing research, a scientist is providing her community and society with knowledge. Scientists continue to make new discoveries and continue to illustrate the many fascinating facets of the universe around us. As I see it, that is the point of science, but when you say, “this information that I discovered is mine, and only I can use it and built on it,” science becomes a business enterprise. We’ve already seen some of the complications of copyrighting genes. Do we really want to extend that to other fields? Paul’s situation is a little different because he is individually responsible for the majority of useful dinosaur skeletal restorations available. The principle, however, should be the same: when research is published, the knowledge gained from it becomes a shared commodity that others can learn from and expand on.

2. In his second rebuttal, Paul addresses the “slippery slope” that if skeletal drawings are off limits, than perhaps published photographs, measurements or even museum mounts could be as well. Paul argues that this is irrelevant because no scientist would object to others making use of their work when conducting further research. This seems like a completely inadequate excuse, because it gives Paul’s work special status that he is not extending to other researchers. The question remains that if one person objects to other scientists making use on their research, than what happens if others follow suit? The entire scientific process would grind to a halt.

3. Paul argues that he was key in establishing the “new look” of dinosaurs in the 1970s and 80s. What he means by “new look”, however, is not clear. Paul’s artwork and research was absolutely central in the transformation of our understanding of dinosaurs from slow, dim-witted monsters to active and socially complex animals (the work of Robert Bakker, John Ostrom, and, undeniably, the artists involved in Jurassic Park were also important). However, if Paul is attempting to claim some ownership of the fact that dinosaurs were, on the whole, fleet-footed and active animals, that seems as unreasonable as James Watson and Francis Crick claiming ownership of the fact that DNA is a double helix (oh wait…). If however, Paul is merely referring to the many artists who’s dinosaur depictions end up with the same emaciated, two-dimensional, dynamic-but-lifeless look of Paul’s, than this is a valid criticism. I hope to find clarification before jumping to conclusions about Paul trying to copyright scientific facts that he happens to have popularized.

Quetzalcoatlus and Daspletosaurus by Gregory Paul. Image borrowed from http://blogevolved.blogspot.com.

Finally, I found what I interpreted to be an attempt to discourage up-and-coming paleoartists from joining the field to be extremely off-putting.

If you are thinking that gee wiz doing your own technical research and restorations sure sounds like a pain in the butt, or may be beyond your knowledge base, and you don’t want to risk doing inaccurate restorations or do not think paying me a fee is workable, then there is another alternative. Perhaps it is better if you do something else. I know, it’s lots of fun illustrating dinosaurs. But if you cannot produce high quality, original paleorestorations is it really a good idea to be in the business? If you for example like the Greg Paul look do you really want to be underbidding me? Does not make sense when you mull it over.

I read this as “this is my field, you will never be as good as me, so don’t even try.” Well gee wiz Mr. Paul, isn’t that a nice thing to say to the legions of fans and admirers whose image of you ranges from “brilliant” to “godly.” Yes, Paul’s work is excellent, and few can duplicate it’s quality, but it doesn’t seem especially constructive to actively discourage others from working in the field.

This is a difficult issue, particularly because the economic factors probably have to weigh more heavily than ideological ones. I hope Mr. Paul’s statement gets wide circulation, and continues to inspire debate on what we should value about science.

8 Comments

Filed under dinosaurs, opinion, paleoart

8 responses to “Science, Art and Gregory Paul

  1. Stephanie

    Hwaet. You wanted my opinion, here goes:

    I don’t think I’m interested in debating what we should value about science. What I find interesting here is that what we value about art and science are completely different. “Highly original research” is not original in the same way as “highly original art.” To be blunt, making awesome shit up in art (although not scientific illustration) is encouraged. Making awesome shit up in science. . . is not the idea.

    This is why I think Gregory Paul’s song writer analogy is not a very useful one. The song writer presumably made up something original and marketable (other adjectives subject to taste). Greg Paul’s skeletal reconstructions are, as per their publishing history, research. That is, they have some basis in what it pleases us to call objective fact. Anything under the KT boundary is in the public domain.

    Unfortunately, I think he’s fallen into a catch-22. If his skeletal reconstructions are, in fact, highly accurate, which isn’t the issue here, then any accurate illustration of a dinosaur will have what he calls the “Greg Paul look.” I noted in passing that he stands up for the accuracy of both his skeletal and muscular reconstructions.

    If his reconstructions are proven inaccurate, then people will start illustrating dinosaurs using new models, and he’ll be able to prosecute people who continue ripping him off, saying, “you are not drawing dinosaurs-as-currently-scientifically-understood, you are drawing my dinosaurs. Stop with the fanart.”

    He wants other artists to do their own reconstructions – from a scientific perspective, it’s always good to check the reproducibility of widely used data. Of course, it’s pretty thankless, and doesn’t pull in the grant money, but it’s how the community self-polices. But the artists he’s complaining about aren’t being unscientific, lazy shlubs (or if they are, that’s not his point). They’re doing their research – using previous publications, which is an entirely valid and common method of researching anything. And it is within the realms of reason to write to a researcher requesting access to unpublished data, if it is relevant to one’s work.

    This is where we hit the “this information that I discovered is mine, and only I can use it and built[sic] on it” problem. Honestly, capitalism is a sucky system for rewarding this kind of innovation – major innovations have a tendency to escape their discoverers and go to the publicists. See also: Hark! A Vagrant!

    It’s not that science is becoming a business enterprise. It’s that life is already a business enterprise. No pun on copyrighted genes intended. I may or may not have been reading a bunch of Jack London lately, and become steeped in early 20th century socialism. Jack London: so much more than White Fang. Ahem.

    I don’t see this:

    The principle, however, should be the same: when research is published, the knowledge gained from it becomes a shared commodity that others can learn from and expand on. as an argument of principle at all – it’s a statement of fact. Making something public, ie publishing it, shares it with the public, and means that people can learn from it. Gregory Paul made a decision to publish his reconstructions, greatly enhancing his stature in the field. He could have chosen not to do so. Would he be in a better position as a paleoartist if he had decided to keep his reconstructions in a file cabinet in his office, out of the realm of peer-review? He chose to trade exclusive access to his reconstructions for public recognition. If he made a bad deal, it’s too late to renege on it.

    It also seems to me that it’s impossible to draw a line between the existence of a scientific illustration as well-researched publication and as art. Insofar as an illustration is well-researched, drawing something that looks like it is not plagiarism, it’s adherence to the current highest standard of scientific accuracy. Insofar as it’s art, I suppose the usual tangle of plagiarism laws apply – and Gregory Paul can try to prosecute whomever he likes, if he thinks he has a case. Basing his internet appeal for special-snowflake-status on the accuracy of his work seems to be shooting himself in the foot – I think he should have run with the paragraphs at the end of his original statement that read like a call for a paeloartists’ union.

  2. Ben

    Angry Tesla’s face = bestever.

    As this discussion progressed on the email list, my impression was that Paul ended up backpeddling toward the more useful solution you pointed out, namely the formation of a paleoartist group that would establish fair fees and the like. How this is different from the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, which several prominent paleoartists belong to, isn’t yet clear.

    I agree that since Paul has already firmly positioned his work in the realm of science rather than art (see his assorted publications), he doesn’t really have a case here. What I think obscures this is the fact that vert paleo is a rather teensy field. The number of publications and active workers is much smaller than, say, molecular biology. As a result, Paul’s skeletal reconstructions make up a pretty big chunk of the available research. For some genera, his reconstructions are the only scientifically useful ones that exist (Aside: Paul agrees that this is bad for science, but in the same breath asserts that his work is far and away the best available. Since he seems to be actively discouraging newcomers to the field, this is unhelpful). I guess it’s possible that the dearth of other reconstructions stems in part from entrenched complacency in relying on Paul’s stuff.

  3. Let me just point out, as I have done about a gazillion times and never seem to get into the minds of the Paul groupies: Mr. Paul’s drawings are, whenever tested, NOT especially accurate, despite his claims. He seems to work off old publications a lot, which often contain insufficient data for his methods, and he sometimes lets preconceived notions get the better of him.
    see http://www.app.pan.pl/article/item/app20090075.html

  4. Ben

    Hi Dr. Mallison, thanks for the post. I wouldn’t characterize myself as a GSP groupie so much as somebody who wants to phrase everything just so to avoid offense. You’ll have to let me know which is worse.

  5. Bryan Riolo

    Gregory Paul should be called out for starving his poor models. No! Wait! He claims accuracy in his restorations–many of which I personally love as art–but he ignores the fact that these animals had fat and skin and nerves and blood. Sorry, folks, but very seldom do bones stick out from flesh–horns excepted–with only a paint layer thin covering of skin. I admire GSP’s art and his work, and a lot of his science. But I’ve never copied anything he ever did, nor have I ever tried to make my dinosaur art imitate his.

    And, thanks to his “I am the GOLD standard!” tirades, I am ecstatic that I didn’t!

  6. Ben

    Yeah, I think I’m more critical of Paul now than I was when I wrote this post (2 years ago…wow). Mostly because I’ve seen much more work by the up-and-coming paleoartists Paul has generally criticized as derivative. It’s not…work by newer artists is much more innovative and imaginative, and probably more accurate, than Paul has managed after a 3+ decade career.

  7. Wow, I know I am 5 years late to this post, so maybe no one will see it, but I hadn’t heard about Paul attacking other artists so vehemently. I think I agree with all the objections to Paul’s arguments, though I would agree with him that it seems problematic for artists striving for scientific accuracy not to do original research. What’s interesting to me, as someone merely with an intellectual interest in prehistoric animals (neither a scientist nor an artist), are the criticisms of his art as inaccurate and lacking a more life-like aspect. His artwork is beautiful in many ways, but I always did find it a bit “wodden” or geometrical-looking. I always thought that must just be my un-scientific/un-artistic eye misjudging it. Glad to have that confirmed. I still admire him as an artist and researcher, and his “Field Guide” is breathtaking in its comprehensiveness. But I’m glad to know I wasn’t alone in being critical.

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