Italian Officials Claim American Gun Ad Featuring Michelangelo's David Is 'Illegal'

from the but-is-it? dept

Somehow the word “copyright” is being thrown around in relation to a 500-year-old statue. Any reasonable person would assume the word “copyright” shouldn’t come within 350 years of any creation, but that’s how the story’s being presented. (h/t to Techdirt reader WulfTheSaxon)

Italy’s culture minister has expressed outrage over an advertisement by a US weapons firm showing Michelangelo’s David holding a rifle. Dario Franceschini said the image was offensive and violated the law.

A number of Italian media web sites carried the image of the advertisement showing David holding a bolt-action rifle. The advertisement, from Illinois-based ArmaLite, carries the line “a work of art” in promoting the $3,000 rifle. Mr Franceschini urged the company to withdraw the advertisement for the AR-50A1.

He said in a tweet: “The image of David, armed, offends and infringes the law. We will take action against the American company so that it immediately withdraws its campaign.”

First off, the ad itself is over a year old, as Sara Morrison at The Wire points out. The ad was originally tweeted by Armalite back in May of 2013. This ad, however, was only recently published in Italy, hence the sudden outrage.

Now, as for the claim of copyright… that doesn’t seem to be exactly what’s being claimed here. (And, indeed, none of the officials quoted actually use the word “copyright,” instead claiming the ad “distorts” the original work. That term is deployed solely by reporting on the event.) The country of Italy “owns” Michelangelo’s statue of David (finished in 1504), although the piece itself resides in Florence, a claim not without its own controversy. (Italy claimed the statue in 2010, something that enraged Florence officials who firmly believed that statue belonged to the city that had hosted it since its completion.)

What Italian officials actually seem to be claiming is control over use of images of the sculpture, which is adjacent to copyright, but not entirely the same thing.

Cristina Acidini, Florence superintendent for history and fine arts, condemned the company’s use of the image and also urged ArmaLite to immediately withdraw it.

“To use a work of art from any of the Florence museums for promotional purposes, it is necessary to obtain an evaluation of how the image may be used,” Miss Acidini said. “No-one ever agreed to that.”

What’s being stated here sounds more like publicity rights. Florence officials are seeking to control use of David’s “image” in advertising. (“Image” in this case being the collective perception of a cultural icon, rather than a photograph.) Italy may technically “own” the sculpture (as much as anyone can “own” a cultural icon), but it can’t claim to control the copyright, which has long since expired. (And that’s even under Italy’s restrictive laws which make no allowances for fair use and include dubious “moral rights” as part of the copyright package.)

So, Florence effectively controls use of images (photos) of the sculpture, and is trying to assert some form of publicity rights on behalf of a statue. It can’t lock anyone out from producing their own David sculptures, but what museum officials have done instead is prevent anyone from producing their own images. The museum has a strict “no photography” policy which means that any photos of David are controlled by the museum. (There doesn’t seem to any similar policy restricting photography of the replica located elsewhere in Florence.) In this fashion, Florence officials can seek to control of David’s use in commercial works via copyright law, even if what’s being detailed here seems to rely more on outrage over “distorting” the sculpture’s iconic status than any true legal basis.

But this assertion of control over a cultural icon is still specious, as even the Florence superintendent of fine arts seems to realize. As Cristina Acidini says at, it’s an “international event” but “I cannot, of course, send the FBI after Armalite.” Instead, she intends to use the court of public opinion to render a verdict in the museum’s favor and shame ArmaLite into dumping the ad.

“But I intend to use all the possibilities of reaction… starting with the ‘moral persuasion’ and scandal in the newspapers.”

So, what we have is a copyright-esque assertion being used to shame a gun manufacturer into dropping an ad that has offended cultural sensibilities halfway around the world (ArmaLite is based in Illinois). At the center of it all is a 500-year-old sculpture currently in the public domain, but controlled by “adjacent” copyright measures. In the end, all these Italian officials have is their offended sensibilities, which really isn’t enough to justify their demands.

Filed Under: , , , ,
Companies: armalite

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Italian Officials Claim American Gun Ad Featuring Michelangelo's David Is 'Illegal'”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

At first I thought ‘that’s a fucking ridiculous image and it offends my sensibilities but I can’t see any justification for suppressing it because this copyright-adjacent malarky should be dismissed as bullshit,’ then I wondered, isn’t this image a great ironic commentary on how art has been commercialised to the point that ‘art’ is now more often than not a selling point for a commercial product, and how many consumers can view mass-produced products as ‘artistic’ in the same way unique hand-crafted works are considered artistic? Doesn’t it also highlight how most consumers actually value these mass-produced commercial products much higher than any traditional ‘work of art’? Moreover, is it not also a critique of adverts for other similar products, for example cars, where the adverts constantly talk about the beauty and the art of the product, and so this advert has merely taken that comparison a step further? And if so, isn’t it proof that media built purely for the purpose of selling commercial products can itself be a complex work of art?

MrWilson says:

Re: Re:

In the age of near-infinite reproducibility, you can have famous artworks printed on toilet paper and literally wipe your ass with the Mona Lisa. The practical reality is that you have to just get over uses of works that offend you (or don’t get over it and make money off of ranting about it if someone will pay you to do that…).

Mal says:

Some years ago (I think in the 1990s) Italy passed a widely ignored law claiming that all great artworks in public collections as well as buildings (e.g., the facade of a church designed by Bernini) were national patrimony and could only be used for commercial purposes by permission.

Meanwhile, in US copyright law some photographs of artworks are copyrightable – specifically, the photo of a 3D work is deemed not to be a slavish copy but to have some degree of new creative content (see widely cited decision i Bridgeman v. Corel and subsequent case law).

Museums in the US and EU often post signs saying “no photographs” or “no photography for commercial purposes.” The downstream commercial user of a photo is then deemed to have violated that contract.

But it would be hard for Italy to prove that a particular stock-house photo of the David was not made with permission – or even to identify a particular photo out of the millions people take every year.

The whole thing is just silly in this instance, but sadly, these sorts of restrictions hamper the use of public-domain art images constantly, especially in art books.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...