Alfred Bell & Co. v. Catalda Fine Arts, Inc.
191 F.2d 99 (2d Cir. 1951)

  • Bell was making 'mezzotint' copies of public domain paintings by old masters.
    • Basically, to make a mezzotint, an artist traces a photograph of a famous work of art and engraved the tracing onto a printing plate to make reproductions that could be easily reprinted in books.
  • Catalda began reprinting some of Bell's mezzotints. Bell sued for copyright infringement.
    • Catalda argued that Bell couldn't copyright the mezzotints because they were merely faithful reproductions of other work. Therefore they were not an original work of authorship.
      • 17 U.S.C. 102(a) requires that a work be original.
      • For example, if the Mona Lisa is in the public domain, how could you get a copyright on a copy of the Mona Lisa?
  • The Trial Court found for Bell. Catalda appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that every engraver would engrave the mezzotint slightly differently, and those subtle differences were enough to meet the originality requirement.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed.
    • The Appellate Court found that the term original should be read to mean "owes its origin" to a particular author, and not that the work was "startling, novel or unusual, or a marked departure from the past."
      • The Court noted that maps are copyrightable, and ideally all maps should be exactly the same (to be accurate).
    • The Court noted that while you can't copyright a work in the public domain, you can copyright a translation of a work in the public domain, and the mezzotints were similar to a translation. They were an artistic interpretation of a public domain work.
      • But, see The Bridgeman Art Library, Ltd. v. Corel Corp. (36 F. Supp.2d 191 (S.D.N.Y. 1999), which held that in order to qualify, a work must be a distinguishable variation from the original. You can't make an exact copy that is indistinguishable from the original.