Public domain: can I use Da Vinci painting in upcoming ad campaign?

I own a small, growing business and would like to use a famous Da Vinci painting in an upcoming advertising campaign. Do I need some sort of permission, and if so, where do I get it?

Perhaps Renaissance painter/sculptor Leonardo Da Vinci anticipated this question when he said long ago, "Art is never finished, only abandoned."

Does that statement mean he has abandoned all rights to the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper or another of his works so you can use it in your advertising?

Whenever possible, said attorney Joe Veenstra, “You should always seek permission from the source of the material you intend to use.”

However, Da Vinci, who lived from 1452 to 1519, is not around to give his approval. If you are using a version of Da Vinci’s art from the Internet or some other source, you should seek permission from the producer of the copied artwork if possible.

Although there was no copyright law at the time he painted the Mona Lisa, if he had produced the Mona Lisa today, the copyright protection would expire 70 years after the artist’s death. It then is in the public domain. Veenstra also notes that when a painting is created in another country, the law may be different, though the U.S. does have agreements providing reciprocal protections with many countries.

There can also be complications when you are working with reproductions. That was true in one interesting court case that occurred in 1999. Bridgeman Art Library, a British company, sued Corel Corp. for selling a CD compilation of fine art in the public domain. The library, which sells color transparencies of “museum-quality reproductions” of the same artwork, claimed it held the copyright. The U.S. court held that the library was not entitled to copyright protection because it had made “slavish” copies. It could not hold a copyright for exact reproductions.

What might have made the British art library’s transparencies copyrightable? If the reproductions had not been slavish, but instead were modified to create new takes on the old masters, the library’s transparencies might be protected.

Somewhat ironically, a minor, yet arguably creative modification can provide copyright protection to the person modifying the original artwork.

For more information on copyright law, contact Joe Veenstra at 608-784-5678.

Please Share Me On