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News blog22 June 2021European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency4 min read

Western copyright infringement and the Vatican faces copyright infringement


Good morning everyone. Hope you all had a good week. For today’s IP news.


A fistful of dollars vs Rango

The practice of including in films (or even in videogames) references to other films or characters, whether explicit or concealed (also known as “Easter Eggs”) has grown. It is a way for directors to pay a tribute to the most iconic characters or to the milestones of the film history. Is this practice lawful without the consent of the owner of the rights in the films and character used?

Well, the Court of Rome had to decide recently on this question in a copyright infringement dispute between two famous Western movies, yet from a different period and genre.

“A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) is the first chapter of the Dollars Trilogy, which also includes “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966), a cult Italian film series directed by Sergio Leone. All three films are focused on the antihero character of the "Man with No Name" played by a young Clint Eastwood, smoking a cigar and wearing the same Poncho and the same cowboy hat in all the films of the trilogy.

"Rango" (2011) is a computer-animated Western comedy film directed by Gore Verbinski and winner of the Best Animated Feature at the 84th Academy Awards. Rango is a pet chameleon who fancies himself an actor. He accidentally winds up in the town of Dirt, a lawless outpost in the Wild West populated by desert's creatures, where he becomes the local sheriff. Rango contains a number of references to Western and other films. In particular, in a pivotal scene, Rango meets the “Spirit of the West” a character that appears as an elderly Clint Eastwood, smoking a cigar and dressing as the Man with No Name from the Dollars Trilogy, who encourages the chameleon to dig deep to find what he is looking for.

The producers of the first movie of the trilogy “A Fistful of Dollars” brought an action before the Court of Rome against the Italian distributors of Rango, claiming that the character of the Spirit of the West infringed copyright in the character from the Man with No Name.

The Court of Rome dismissed the claims, on the basis of the following arguments:

  • The two films are totally different in regard to their context. The first is “dramatic and developed on a growing narrative tension”, the second is “satirical and semi-serious seemingly intended mainly for children”;

  • According to the Court, the reference that is made is not to the character of the Man with No Name, but rather to the actor Clint Eastwood “in light not only of the evident physical, vocal and attitude similarity between the Spirit of the West and the actor Clint Eastwood, but also the fact that the actor is portrayed as an old and white-haired man, that is how he appears to the public today” (in Rango, the Spirit of the West is not the young gunslinger of the Trilogy, but an elderly gentleman who drives a golf caddy, with a golf bag full of Academy Awards);

  • The Spirit of the West plays a temporally limited role whose only purpose is to pay a tribute to the main actor of the spaghetti western saga and to his director Sergio Leone;

  • Finally, according to the Court, the case could not fall under the exception of parody, because “all contents relating to the cinematographic works referred to in “Rango”, while being immediately recognizable, do not assume a desecrating or in any case “reworking” function with purposes different from those of the original work”. The Court here considered that the use falls under the exception of quotation.


The Vatican accused of copyright infringement

One night in early 2019, street artist Alessia Babrow glued a stylized image of Christ she had made onto a bridge near the Vatican. A year later, she learned that the Vatican had apparently used a reproduction of the image, which featured Babrow's hallmark heart emblazoned across Christ’s chest, as its 2020 Easter postage stamp.

The work is part of Babrow’s “Just Use It” project, which began in 2013 and has included similar hearts on Buddhas, the Hindu deity Ganesha and the Virgin Mary that can be found on walls, stairwells and bridges around Rome. A huge version also graces a palazzo scaffolding. The concept of the project, Babrow says, is to “promote the intelligence and the brain of the heart” in a holistic, non-judgmental way.

Apparently, Olivieri, the Vatican’s numismatic chief, took a photo of the Christ when he discovered it while riding his moped one day and decided to use the image for the Easter stamp in an apparent attempt to appeal to a new generation of stamp enthusiasts.

Babrow is now suing the Vatican's telecommunications office in a Rome court, alleging it was wrongfully profiting off her creativity and violating the intent of her artwork. The lawsuit, seeking nearly €130,000 in damages, said the Vatican never responded officially to Babrow’s attempts to negotiate a settlement after she discovered it had used her image without consent and sold it.

The Vatican is home to some of the greatest artworks ever made, and it vigorously enforces its copyright over everything from the Sistine Chapel to Michelangelo’s Pieta. But now the tables have turned, and the Vatican stands accused of violating the intellectual property rights of a street artist. Indeed, regardless of the canvas, artwork is protected by copyright.


This is all for this week. See you Thursday for our monthly blog post!


Publication date
22 June 2021
European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency