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.