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.
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
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