Italy's Quest to Protect Its Art Compared to 'a Land Grab'

Cultural code enforcement targets reproductions of iconic works in the public domain
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 11, 2024 9:46 AM CDT
Italy's Quest to Protect Its Art Compared to 'a Land Grab'
In this 2015 file photo, Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" is displayed in Milan, Italy.   (Matteo Bazzi/ANSA via AP)

For years, German toy maker Ravensburger has been decorating puzzles with Leonardo Da Vinci's iconic Vitruvian Man drawing. Under European law, copyright protections extend 70 years after the death of an artist, meaning Vitruvian Man has been in the public domain for centuries since Da Vinci's 1519 death. The law applies in Da Vinci's native Italy, an EU member state. But it's come up against an Italian law with very different intentions. The 2004 law aims to protect symbols of cultural identity and allows institutions to request concession fees for the commercial reproduction of cultural properties, as Venice's Gallerie dell'Accademia requested of Ravensburger in 2019. That prompted a legal fight that, five years on, has yet to reach a definitive conclusion, per the New York Times.

After Ravensburger refused to pay, a Venice court in 2022 ordered the company to do so. The following year, Galleria dell'Accademia won a lawsuit against GQ Italia over its unauthorized use of an image of Michelangelo's David. An Italian court found the magazine failed to obtain a license from the museum, which owns image rights to the artwork, despite it being in the public domain, per ArtNet. Outside of Italy, however, a German court ruled last month there was no reason for Ravensburger to pay for use of Vitruvian Man as the Italian code doesn't apply outside Italy. "The opposite view violates the sovereignty of the individual states and must therefore be rejected," the court ruled, per the Times.

Italy isn't conceding despite what many view "as a land grab by the Italian courts to control and monetize artworks in the public domain that were never intended to be charged for," art market lawyer Thomas C. Danziger tells the AP. A government rep said it would challenge the German ruling before "every national, international and community court," the Times reports. Eleonora Rosati, an Italian-qualified lawyer and professor of intellectual property law at Stockholm University, expects the arguments to continue, warning "all those using the images of Italian cultural heritage may want to assess the risk they are facing in doing that," per the Times. In a separate test of the law, Florence's Uffizi Gallery has sued fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier for depicting Botticelli's The Birth of Venus on clothing. (More Italy stories.)

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