A New Development in the Italian Cultural Heritage Landscape: Leonardo Da Vinci’s Signature “Io, Leonardo” May Become a Brand

Lucia Minnucci

The famous signature of Italian genius Leonardo Da Vinci “Io, Leonardo,” from page 1054 of the Codex Atlanticus, is joining the ranks of cultural works that, although in the public domain due to the expiration of copyright, are not always free to use

Many of these works are instead protected by the Italian Cultural Heritage Code (the “Code”), according to which cultural heritage works cannot be used for commercial purposes without the authorization of the public institution designated as the caretaker of the works and responsible of preserving them. As noted in Akran IP’s previous articles, Italian institutions often try to enforce these regulations, such as in the cases of Ravensburger’s use of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and of Jean Paul Gaultier’s use of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

Leonardo’s famous signature, however, may not be protected by the Code. Ownership and possession of a cultural heritage may determine whether the Code is applied. The Codex Atlanticus was donated to the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana (the “Ambrosiana” or the “Library”), which is an ecclesiastic institution and as such may not be entitled to prevent unauthorized use of Leonardo’s signature the same way the national museum Gallerie dell’Accademia could oppose Ravensburger’s use of the Vitruvian Man..

Set on preserving the prestige, beauty and importance of Leonardo’s work, and thus as far as possible controlling its use, the Ambrosiana, together with IBC International Brand Consulting (“IBC”), developed a branding project with Leonardo’s signature as the main protagonist. The Library is currently seeking European trademark registration for the signature and plans on licensing its use in view of an agreement with IBC, as reported by La Stampa and Artribune. Licensees will be authorized to use the brand with their products, with a few conditions: they must use it in a way that is appropriate in view of the importance of Da Vinci’s work and respectful of the value of what it represents. Licensees of the signature will also be able to use Leonardo’s original designs from the Codex Atlanticus for inspiration.

Examples of the products envisioned as appropriate and preserving of Leonardo’s heritage can be viewed on IBC’s website, and include a range of products from stationary, to handbags and clothing, to household items.

Choosing the path of trademark protection brings a series of caveats. On one hand, the licensees’ new collections will have a line of protection against counterfeiting and unauthorized commercial use, granted by the eventual trademark registration. On the other, protection will be limited to the use of the figurative mark, i.e. the signature, for the goods listed in the trademark application.

Here lies the distinction between the limitations imposed by the Code and the protections granted by a trademark registration. Anyone who wishes to make any commercial use of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus must seek authorization of the national custodian and, if granted, pay the required fee. Instead, anyone who wishes to produce a line of products using the Codex Atlanticus’ designs, not including the “Io, Leonardo” signature, or plans to use the signature on products not listed in the application, would be free to do so.

This event adds fuel to the ongoing debate on the authorized use of cultural works in Italy. One of the recurrent questions is whether use of cultural works for which copyright has expired should be restricted at all. The prevailing view in Italy, and the reasoning behind the Code, is that moral rights are perpetual so the State has a duty to preserve the value and integrity of Italian’s cultural heritage works, especially where the original authors can no longer do so. Nonetheless, many believe this view has been questioned by the recent campaign of the Italian National Tourism Agency, which features Botticelli’s Venus as an influencer. While the Ambrosiana’s choice of registering the signature as a brand gives control over the commercialization of a cultural work to an ecclesiastic institution, rather than a national institution, it may guarantee the preservation of the integrity of Leonardo’s heritage. It remains to be seen whether that will be true.

Another traditional view that may now be questioned is that the use of cultural heritage works should be free for editorial purposes. Indeed, while article 108 of the Code establishes that personal, educational, cultural and editorial use of the works, and any use protected by the freedom of expression, is free, the new Ministerial Decree No. 161 of April 11, 2023, lists commercialized editorials and scientific periodicals among the uses requiring payment of a fee. Several Italian cultural associations have challenged the decree and accused it of violating the fundamental freedom of expression as well as the freedom of the arts and sciences. As far as Leonardo’s signature is concerned, however, the Ambrosiana’s choice of registering the signature as a brand should not restrict editorial rights, at least as long as the use remains descriptive.


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