Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co.
188 U.S. 239 (1903)

  • Courier Lithographing (represented by Bleistein), produced a number of posters (aka chromolithographs) advertising a circus. Later, the circus needed more prints made, but instead of going back to Courier, they went to a cheaper competitor, Donaldson, who copied the posters. Bleistein sued for copyright infringement.
    • Donaldson argued that copyright protection should only be extended to 'fine arts' not to advertising or other 'commercial arts'.
  • The Trial Court found for Donaldson. Bleistein appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that posters were not within the protection of copyright law because they were illustrations of actual people (the circus performers). Therefore they were not a 'creation' of the illustrator.
    • The Court found that the posters were not within the protection of copyright law because they were commercial advertisements.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Bleistein appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that illustrators are creators, even when they are drawing images of real people.
      • The Court noted that when making a reproduction of something from real life (like a person or a landscape), other artists are "free to copy the original, but they are not free to copy the copy."
    • The Court found that illustrations used for commercial purposes are still copyrightable.
      • "A picture is nonetheless a picture."
    • The Court issued a warning that judges were not to evaluate the artist or aesthetic merit of art when determining whether or not is should be covered by copyright law.
      • That's now known as the Bleistein Nondiscrimination Principle.
  • If the purpose of copyright law is to encourage people to create works of art, should it apply to advertising? Wouldn't people make advertising anyway, even if it was copied by others?