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16th Century Illustrations found Pinterest

Posted: Mon Mar 20, 2017 9:40 am
by GeorgeB

I wonder if anyone can clarifiy this for me. I found a series of 16th century botanical illustrations by Ulisse Aldrovandi on Pinterest. Some of the people who have posted these images claim that they are 'probably' in the public domain believed to be free to use without restriction in the US - no mention of here in the UK.

Some of the images have come from a site called The ownere of this site 'believes' these images are copyright free but adds the rider that "each user is fully responsible for their own use of these images".

The same images can also be found via Pinterest at which belongs to The University of Bologna.

I want to use one of the images which I will print on my home printer and frame with old frame that I have. I then want to sell this at bric-a-brac event for a local charity. I have tried emailing the University of Bologna but they were very vague and didn't quite understand what I wanted to do with the image. However, for massed produced work sold commercially they would expect a fee which is fairly exorbitant.

So I am left unsure as to whether or not I can use the image from Pinterest/Vintageprintable for my purpose. Any advice would be much appreciated.



Posted: Mon Mar 20, 2017 1:13 pm
by AndyJ
Hi George,

Given their age and the fact that in the intervening period the illustrations have been published or made available to the public, no copyright now applies to the original works.

However what you have found on the internet are digital copies of the originals. In some jurisdictions (such as the USA) such digital copies are not generally recognised as 'new' works and therefore don't benefit from a new copyright. In the UK the situation is less clear-cut. On the one hand the Intellectual Property Office (part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) say
Simply creating a copy of an image won’t result in a new copyright in the new item. However, there is a degree of uncertainty regarding whether copyright can exist in digitised copies of older images for which copyright has expired.
whereas a leading barrister who specialises in intellectual property, Jonathan Rayner James QC, takes a narrower view and holds that almost all photographs have the potential to attract copyright irrespective of their subject matter. Regrettably the UK courts have not been asked to clarify the law on this.
The Court of Justice of the European Union has examined some aspects of the issue, although not directly addressing the issue of digital copies of works of art, and has said that only where the new work (ie the digital copy) is the author's own intellectual creation, can the new work attract copyright. Despite this, a number of museums continue to claim copyright in images which are not only digital copies, but occasionally involve the use of automated scanning systems, with virtually no human input, to create them.
I am not clear who might have produced the digital images you have found, although possibly if the University of Bologna holds the original drawings, maybe they commissioned the copies. If so then Italian law may apply regarding the matter of whether such copies can gain copyright protection. Generally speaking Art. 1 requires only that the work be "of the intellect" and "of creative character", of the author and Art. 87 expressly lists photographs of reproductions of works of figurative art (riproduzioni di opere dell'arte figurativa) as works which are protected by copyright. On this basis, and notwithstanding the CJEU's stance, I think an Italian court might well uphold a claim to copyright in digital copies of these illustrations. However such a decision might well be reversed by the CJEU.

As you can see, this is why some sites are wary of claiming such images are free of copyright. Morally speaking there is no justification for economic barriers being erected around works of art which are in the public domain, but that of course does not pay for the museums' overheads!

Posted: Mon Mar 20, 2017 4:36 pm
by GeorgeB
Hi Andy

Thank you so much for your reply which was extremely useful. I think, for my own peace of mind, I won't use this image. I'm sure that there is little chance of the University of Bologna finding out if I did, but I would know.

Once again, thank you for clear and detailed reply.