Intellectual property

Albrecht Dürer’s monogram

It’s unlikely that the first ever court case in history was won on equity rather than strength or ruse. It’s reassuring to know that the world’s first copyright case was reportedly won by the plaintiff fair and square.

In 1506, the German artist Albrecht Dürer was visiting Venice as an agent of a German trading company. He had arrived in the Serenissima the year before.

The Italian artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari reported that Dürer’s engravings and woodcuts were so prized in Venice, that many artists were copying and selling them as genuine Dürer art along with Dürer’s famous monogram. One such artist was the printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi. Although an engraver, Marcantonio is now known mainly for his prints reproducing famous paintings, more of a laser printer than a printmaker. Young Marcantonio Raimondi saw Dürer’s woodcuts in the Piazza of San Marco and began to counterfeit them selling with the monogram.

When Dürer found out, he took Marcantonio to court and won. A small step for the German artist, a giant leap for European art and copyright law. According to the ruling, Marcantonio could continue to copy Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings, but he could no longer use Dürer’s monogram. The trademark would  now serve to distinguish the original item from other versions of it, not just to promote its author, as it had been the case intermittently since ancient times. 

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