Welcome to Superoceras, a blog about science and natural history, slightly biased towards paleontology and zoology, but inclusive of all sciences. Started in October of 2009, my goal is to communicate scientific knowledge (and the occasional piece of nonsense) in an informative and entertaining manner. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, concerns, or criticism at superoceras(at)gmail(dot)com, and follow me on Twitter @Superoceras for all that and more in 140 characters or less!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The new "Bone Wars": Greg Paul, science, and the art of paleontology.

*Let me start by saying that I have been sitting on and rewriting this post for nearly a week now. As the conversation has been taking place in e-mails and on the web, my opinions on the subject have been all over the place. But I finally feel that I have something to add the conversation, so here it goes.*

The only time I ever met interacted with Greg Paul was at SVP in Pittsburgh in October 2011. I had picked up a copy of his new book, the somewhat controversial The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, and was thumbing through it, when a voice from behind said, "I hear it's terrible." As I turned around I said, "I don't know, I've always been a fan of his work." I nearly fell over when I realized it was Mr. Paul whom I was speaking with. My girlfriend, who was with me at the time, can attest to this fact. I was speechless for a few seconds, but in the end, I was glad to see that he was capable of having a laugh at himself, and I admired his dry wit as much as I admired his work.

For those of you who don't know Mr. Paul, he is a dinosaur illustrator and researcher who has been influential in establishing the "new look" of dinosaurs over the last several decades. He has published a number of books, scientific papers, magazine and newspaper articles, and illustration guides. He has also hand drawn an extensive collection of skeletal restorations, muscle studies, and life reconstructions that are unparalleled in their accuracy. As is indicated above, I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the work he has done over the years. But my opinion about him started to shift around

a week ago, when he sent to an e-mail to the Dinosaur Mailing List regarding the use of his dinosaur restorations.

In the message, Paul starts by talking about a very real problem: blatant plagiarism of his work, people making money off of this plagiarism, and the fact that people selling ripped-off art undermines his ability to sell his own. The action of the offenders, as many have commented, is completely unacceptable. But things got a little stranger from there, as Paul started multiple other threads on the subject, asked people to stop posing their skeletal restorations in the same manner as his, and asked artists not use his work at all as reference material for anything they are working on. Other paleontologists and paleoartists quickly got involved in the conversation. The blogosphere then started to talk about it, with posts on the exchanges showing up on ART Evolved: Life's Time Capsule (twice), The Paleo King (twice), Love in the Time of Chasmosaurus (twice) , drip, and The Bite Stuff. It's even reached Scientific American at this point.

I tried to hold off on writing about the whole thing, as the conversation is taking place in multiple locations already. But there is something about what Paul has said that directly impacts me, and so I think I'll add one more voice, as small as it may be. And I do mean that. I am not a professional paleontologist, or a professional artist. I do not derive any income at all from my writing here, or the art I create. In fact, I'm almost hesitant to call myself a writer or an artist at all, despite the fact that I do write, and I do create art. I do both because I want to. But that doesn't mean that in the future, I wouldn't like to be monetarily compensated for my work, should I become proficient at either skill.

And this is where Greg Paul comes in. He has, unquestionably, inspired generations of paleoartists with his work. He also created an industry standard for skeletal restorations. Whether you know it or not, you've probably seen a piece by Greg Paul. He has published many of them in books, articles, and papers. He spends a great deal of time and energy on his work. His skeletals in particular are top notch, as Paul and others in the field fully acknowledge. I don't want to take that away from him (or any other professional paleoartist) in any way, shape, or form. And no one else should be able to get away with copying his work and calling it their own. But the "rules" he is imposing raise some serious questions for someone like myself who wants to draw a picture of a dinosaur, just for the sake of drawing it and expanding their knowledge and artistic ability.

I'll give you an example. Back during the month of October, ART Evolved hosted their "Pink Dinosaur" event. I drew a dinosaur every day for a month. Some of them were simple and cartoonish. Others were a bit more detailed. And again, even though I'm not trained as a paleoartist, I like to try and create images that are (as) accurate (as I am capable of making them). I used a reference image, be it a photo of mine, a skeletal from a paper, or an image from Wikimedia Commons, for most of the pieces I did. And I made note of the specimen, figure, or paper that I got my reference from. With my Balaur bondoc, I referenced and used a skeletal restoration from the PNAS article. For my Anchiornis huxleyi, I didn't use a skeletal reference, but I did use information from the Science article that described the color and patterns present in this animals feathers. In both situations, I used a peer-reviewed, scientific article to assist in my life reconstruction. I just used different data from each. Before last week, I wouldn't have thought anything about it. The articles were produced to communicate and share scientific knowledge. I used that knowledge to make amateur reconstructions. That's ok, right?

According to Greg Paul, no. Well, let me clarify. Had the papers or images been his, it wouldn't have been ok to use them. I think. His basic points in his initial e-mail are that he wants anyone working on a reconstruction to not use any of his work as a reference, and do all of the research for themselves. That is, go to a museum collection, photograph specimens, dig through papers, scale skeletal elements, and create a unique skeletal restoration (not to be posed in the same style as his either), upon which they should then wrap the muscle and skin to create a unique piece of art. I'm not opposed to that, at all. And if I had access to collections and papers, I would be totally for it. In fact, I'd love it. That being said, am I doing something inherently wrong by using skeletals that come from journal articles if they are the only sources I have access to? Especially if what I am doing is not for commercial gain, and I don't stand to compete with anyone in the paleoart market?

If "of course not" is your answer to that question, let me take it a step further. Would it be unthinkable for me to reference skeletal restorations that Greg Paul has published in articles in peer-reviewed journals or volumes as references? Not copy them or call them my own, but use them as a basis, with permission from and/or credit to their creator, for my work? What about books, like Predatory Dinosaurs of the World or Dinosaurs of the Air? Paul has made a point to say that his skeletal restorations, muscle studies, and life reconstructions featured in the The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs are copyrighted. And out of respect for his very clear wishes, I guess I won't ever be using any of them as a basis for my own reconstructions. That's too bad, because I've purchased many of Paul's books specifically to gain access to his restorations, which I consider of the highest caliber. I have paid money, a portion of which I imagine he receives, in order to gain this access. Just like I pay for SVP membership to access the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. He has created what he calls a "uniquely extensive library of detailed skeletal restorations that are exceptionally proportionally accurate in most cases". Scientifically accurate skeletal restorations, pure and simple. And they most certainly are. Should that not, then, mean that they are part of a body of scientific knowledge, which should be accessible to those interested in the field. Should his research not be used, referenced, and built upon?

I really don't know anymore. I have a copy of Ken Carpenter's Carnivorous Dinosaurs on my shelf. And I used an article in it, by Greg Paul, as a reference for a reconstruction and a post I did on Therizinosaurus about a year ago when Art Evolved put up their "Therizinosaur Gallery". I didn't use his skeletal as a base for my reconstruction (as you can clearly tell from my piece), but I used information in his article - helpful information - to decide the posture and look for my therizinosaur. I used information from other articles as well. Was what I did wrong? Should he want to, can Mr. Paul seek legal action because I've made it publicly known that I've referenced (again, not copied or even used his restorations) his work? Where does one draw the line?

Looking back on my Therizinosaurus, the end result is not perfect, and having learned from that experience, I know what I would do differently the next time around. Using a skeletal restoration would be an integral part of making my reconstruction all the more accurate. Paul himself has said that he is worried that there will be no "professional body of paleoillustration that paleontolgists could call upon", and believes that "the quality of the art available to the public" is degrading. You would think, given such sentiments, that he'd be willing to let his work, which he knows is scientifically accurate, be used by those looking to produce paleoart, even at the level of someone like myself. It really is a shame, because I think he has made amazing scientific contributions to the field of dinosaur paleontology. Paul's work is some of, if not the, best out there. And to cut off paleoartists of the future and hobbyists like myself off from his work, means the quality of what we produce (again, admitting that my work is not of the highest quality in general) will only be diminished.

Luckily, there are places out there to find skeletal drawings and reconstruction tips, like Scott Hartman's Skeletal, his new blog, and ART Evolved, among others. And I completely want Paul, and all other professional paleoartists to be able to make a living with what they do. I cannot stress enough how important their work is to the scientific community, and the general public as well. But I also want up and coming professionals to be able to get a foot in the door. They deserve the opportunity. For example, all of the "Crew" over at ART Evolved (who seemed to go unmentioned when people on the list started talking about organizing a paleoart presence online, when they clearly already have) deserve a shot at "going pro" if they want it. That's why I'm truly disheartened by one statement in particular that Paul has made. And it is less than encouraging to read things like the following, coming from such a highly respected member of the field:
"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?"
I'm sorry. But I cannot agree with that. He's not talking about people stealing his work, or underbidding him at this point. He's straight up telling people that if their work isn't as good as his, they should stop trying. And that's not right. I don't care who you are. It's downright mean, and honestly, he's been a little nasty and dismissive to some other individuals who have commented on how realistic his vision is. I really don't want to speak negatively of someone that I've regarded so highly for so long. But it has become increasingly difficult to take some of his more valid points seriously, let alone have a productive conservation on some of the real issues facing art, science, and the intersection between them today.

Paul knows it, you know it, I know it. Drawing dinosaurs is fun, and if you want to do it, do it, no matter what your skill level. I may never have the status of Greg Paul, or sell any of my art, but that isn't going to stop me from doing illustrations of dinosaurs and other critters. And I'm not looking to break into "the business" today, but if someone does want to sign me onto a project in the future, I think it would be an honor, and I would reserve the right to set any price I want for my services, should I charge. If Paul expects others to take him seriously in all of this, and respect his wishes in regards to his work, he should respect the wishes of others in regards to theirs as well, and stop treating anyone that doesn't meet his standard like their opinions on the issue don't matter. Again, my voice might be small, but that doesn't mean it should not be heard.

In closing, I think it's important to reiterate that even if I'm taking issue with his personal opinions now, I have the utmost respect for Greg Paul, and his work. I would certainly never copy it, and call it my own. Nor would I do that with the work of any other artist. To do so is simply wrong. And I want professional paleoartists to be able to make a living. But I also want part-time and aspiring paleoartists to be able to get work as well. And everyone reserves the right to do work for pay, pro bono, or under some type of creative commons license. If you want to use a pose for a skeletal restoration that has become an industry standard, I don' think you should be afraid to. You can't copyright a pose that is within the biological limits of an animals movement anymore than you can copyright an animal itself. But you can (and I will) respect Mr. Paul's wishes, and not use his skeletals for any of my future reconstructions.

I'm sure that this discussion is far from over, so please, feel free to comment here, or at any of the links that I've overpopulated this post with. If nothing else, I hope that Mr. Paul's e-mails have shed some light on a subject that doesn't get a lot of attention, and that some real solutions to the real issues that face all paleoartists (not just Paul's list of demands) are addressed. Here's to a brighter future for the science and art of paleontology.


  1. "I used that knowledge to make amateur reconstructions. That's ok, right?...The articles were produced to communicate and share scientific knowledge. I used that knowledge to make amateur reconstructions. That's ok, right?"

    Depends on how you interpret United States copyright law...see my thoughts on this here:

    Basically, it has to due with whether something can be considered a "derivative work" or not under the copyright law--and the law here is ambiguous and is usually determined by the judicial system on a case-by-case basis. So basically, the only way to find out for sure is if you get sued and then wait to see how the judge rules...

  2. "The articles were produced to communicate and share scientific knowledge. I used that knowledge to make amateur reconstructions. That's ok, right?"

    In this instance, I'm talking specifically about information published in scientific journals that I acknowledged/referenced when I submitted my work. Take my Anchiornis for example. I obtained this information:

    "Quantitative comparisons with melanosome shape and density in extant feathers indicate that the body was gray and dark and the face had rufous speckles. The crown was rufous, and the long limb feathers were white with distal black spangles."

    from this article:

    Li, Q., Gao, K.-Q., Vinther, J., Shawkey, M.D., Clarke, J.A., D'Alba, L., Meng, Q., Briggs, D.E.G. and Prum, R.O. "Plumage color patterns of an extinct dinosaur." Science, 327(5971): 1369 - 1372. doi:10.1126/science.1186290

    So if I give my dinosaur a rufous crown and limb feathers with distal black spangles, is it considered a derivative work? Can M. A. DiGiorgio take me to court because he was the first individual to illustrate Anchiornis that way? Can Julia Clarke sue me because she was an author on the paper in which the findings were written?

    What if I want to do a Giraffatitan piece? Can I use information from Paul's 1988 technical paper from Hunteria, or will I be in big trouble? Can I use his skeletal restoration? I know he doesn't want me to, and I can respect his personal wishes, but it was information published in a technical paper. It's not coming from a book that he has copyrighted images in. With all due respect to Paul's amazing work, if he published it as scientific data in 1988, it seems silly to ask to be financially compensated for using it today.

  3. "Paul has made a point to say that his skeletal restorations, muscle studies, and life reconstructions featured in the The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs are copyrighted"

    What? A study of muscles is copyrighted? So if another does a scientific myological study on the same species, and actually verifies paul's results...then they are ridiculously in breach of Paul's copyright? What nonsense.

    Where does the testable science [non-commercialized, and not copyrightable] in these supposedly rigorous studies get separated from the copyrightable art in these works and in Paul's claims???

  4. Spectacular post David! I really couldn't agree with you more and you have said it better than I ever could. Mind if I cross post this on ART Evolved?

  5. Peter, I was going to say feel free - I submitted it via e-mail yesterday - but you already beat me to it. Thanks a bunch!

    Jay, in regards to your last question, several people have asked Paul directly where he draws the line, and what he considers art and what he considers science. As far as I know, he has managed to avoid answering that question directly as of this moment, but he did say this in a e-mail to the list earlier:

    "What is true is that I consider myself the best at the combination of art quality PLUS scienctific accuracy in dinosaurs and certain other extinct beasts."

    It would seem as if it is all or nothing.

  6. This is a well thought out post (if also a very personal one). The unfairly shortened response is "Greg may have over-reached". The longer and more nuanced response...will require a larger format (stay tuned!).

  7. Well said. I've yet to chime in, because I'm still reading the messages (not being on the DML is a slight disadvantage here).

  8. Scott H., thank you. With all of the back and forth, the only way I thought it possible to weigh in and have it be of value was to come at it from a personal perspective. I'm glad to hear you think came across well (I was a little worried it would seem selfish, despite how much I hope I speak for the "little guy"), and look forward to hearing what else you have to say on the matter, being one of the individuals Paul's statements directly affects.

    Scott E., I'm not sure I even got through all of the messages at the time of posting! Being away from the computer for a week has also exacerbated the situation a little, so hopefully we'll both catch up soon.