Monday, September 26, 2005

Albrecht Dürer and Copyright

Albrecht Dürer may lay claim to the most aggressive copyright notice ever used, declaring in 1511 in a colophon to the Life of the Virgin:

Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains. Think not rashly to lay your thievish hands upon my works. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximillian, that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings? Listen! And bear in mind that if you do so, through spite or through covetousness, not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger.

What got him so angry? The answer is seen in a current show "Paper Musuems: the Reproductive Print in Europe, 1500-1800," at New York University's Grey Art Gallery through December 3d, reviewed in an excellent, Friday New York Times article by Grace Glueck.

Dürer was angry at Marcantonio Raimondi, who had made a line-for-line copy of Dürer's work. Dürer obtained an injunction, but only against the use of Albrecht's well-known "AD"insignia. Raimondi's prints sold for the same price as Dürer's and with Dürer's insignia could easily fool the public as to the source of the print, a problem currently dealt with in Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act. Raimondi was not just a scoundrel; he worked with famous artists on creating authorized prints. He and other, less-skilled print makers who sold their mass-produced versions served to acquaint the general public with works that were otherwise limited to the wealthy, including the church.

Among the excellent sources of information on Dürer's travails (in addition to the catalog essay in the NYU show by Alexandra Korey) is a 215 page book I just read by Lisa Pon, published in February 2004 by Yale University Press called "Raphael, Dürer, and Marcantonio Raimondi: Copying and the Italian Renaissance Print" as well as the September 2004 issue of the Japanese Journal "Studies in Western Art," entitled "Originality and Reproduction" which contains numerous very interesting and probing articles on the copying of Western art throughout the ages.

The NYU show raises a number of important points about what was considered an original and what is now considered a derivative work; many prints made creative changes in the works, and it should be noted that it was quite late in the copyright game that such alterations were deemed infringing, in the U.S. perhaps as late as 1909: the English common law doctrine of "fair abridgment" thrived in the U.S. well into the mid-to late 1800s.


Anonymous said...

WP> Raimondi's prints sold for the same price as Dürer's and with Dürer's insignia could easily fool the public as to the source of the print, a problem currently dealt with in Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act.

"Currently" eh? -- are you so sure of that, after Dastar? :-)

William Patry said...

Good point re Dastar. I went to the oral argument in Dastar; most enjoyable, and I love the "mutant copyright" quip in the opinion. Dastar is perhaps the one example in recent memory (or at least mine) when overreaching turned out to backfire on content owners big-time.

Anonymous said...

According to Professor Patry's summary, Raimondi was copying an acutal mark used in trade: the very center of the concept of trademark infringement. In such a case Durer would not have needed overgeneralizations of "false claim of origin" or flawed concepts like "dilution" in order to defend his privileges within the Empire.

William Patry said...

Here's a reference to the issue from a 2003 British Museum exhibition of his works:

"[T]he famous monogram of the intertwined initials AD with which he signed his works is seen as the equivalent of a modern logo. Such a device had not been necessary in the Middle Ages, when every work of art was by definition unique. But, with mass-produced images unprotected by laws of copyright, it functioned as a sign of authorship, a guarantee of authenticity, and an instantly identifiable brand name. And the next time you hear about anti-globalisation riots, remember that by the early 16th century Durer had become both celebrated and rich by saturating the European market with his block prints."

Anonymous said...

What is wonderful about this is that the Durer logo is an integral part of the work. E.g., if I were to give you the rabbit here:

without the logo, wouldn't I be giving you something less than the full product? Can the same be said for most trademarks?

As you probably know, David Nimmer has said the "mutant copyright" quip was stolen from his briefing. See David Nimmer, The Moral Imperative Against Academic Plagiarism (Without a Moral Right Against Reverse Passing Off), 54 DEPAUL L. REV. 1, 60 (2004). We must give credit where credit is due. :-)

Anonymous said...

So is it history repeating itself or have we evolved at all armed as we are with modern international and national laws and regulations governing intellectual property? The digital revolution, still at its very early stages, has the same charm as early printmaking by spreading knowledge and the arts to the world populations with apparently the same price to be suffered (and the same opportunities to be seized) by authors and publishers in centuries past.

What a great post, Prof. Patry! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

RE: "the catalog essay in the NYU show by Alexandra Korey"

Dear Professor. I'm extremely pleased, and just a little surprised, at your interdisciplinary appreciation and application of our show, "Paper Museums". I would just like to point out that credit for the show should go to our professor-curators, Rebecca Zorach and Elizabeth Rodini.

The "copyright suit" between Durer and Marcantonio is unique verbal evidence for how early modern artists may have thought about copies, but the visual record of prints seems to indicate that not all artists thought the way durer did. The instances of copying and quoting present in 16th-century prints indicates a more liberal attitude to intellectual property (where indeed, quoting elements was evidence of visual intelligence), more similar to that taken by the contributors to July's Wired Magazine, thematically devoted to digital sampling (

just a quick note on this: "Raimondi's prints sold for the same price as Dürer's."
Actually, we don't really know how much either print cost (early print prices is a hot topic in our field). Vasari (the old art historian) tells us that the public bought M's prints thinking they were AD's, but not how much the public paid.

Ironically, I'm presently working on an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi that was copied for the next few centuries in woodcut, drawing, paintings on marble (!), etc etc. I wonder if he'd have been happy about this. Probably.

Best Regards,
Alexandra Korey

Anonymous said...

I'm delighted that Professor Patry cited my book, Raphael, Durer and Marcantonio Raimondi, as an "excellent source" for information about Durer and copyright, and I wanted to add a few clarifications. I argued that we should keep in mind that 16th C Europe was not operating under a system of copyrights, but one of privileges. That is to say, there was no sense of the rights of an author as originator, but rather favors granted (like patents of nobility and other favors) by a ruling government to whomever that government wished. Those privileges were in force only within the realm of the granting authority, and in fact when Durer's Life of the Virgin woodcuts first appeared in Venice, they were not protected from copyists by a Venetian privilege. Thus neither Marcantonio nor his publishers were breaking any laws. Furthermore, I suggested that those Venetian engraved copies of Durer¹s Life of the Virgin were made for the Gesuati, a lay order who encouraged daily contemplation of saints¹ lives, especially Mary¹s, and so we should reframe discussion of those copies in terms of a religious economy, rather than as a copyright infraction. That means the original/[degenerate/criminal] copy model, and our conception of Marcantonio as an unsavory character, might productively be put aside.

I agree 100% with Joshua Wattle, who saw parallels between our contemporary, newly digital world, and sixteenth-century Europe, as it grappled with print, that then recent and remarkably powerful means of passing on texts and images.

Those interested in hearing a bunch of art historians (inclduing yours truly) discuss issues related to the reproductive prints displayed in the exhibition now at the Grey Art Gallery can look into the panel discussion this Saturday, November 5 at the Grey Gallery website under public programs.