To whom does art belong? On the origins of copyright law in Lithuania

  • Jolita Mulevičiūtė
Keywords: copyright, intellectual property, censorship, art market, art collecting, copying, mechanical reproduction, photography


In Lithuania, the history of copyright started with the abolishment of the Third Lithuanian Statute in 1840 and the establishment of Russia’s legal system. Introduced in 1828 as the rules on literary property, Russian copyright regulations were extended to cover music and visual art in 1845 and 1846, with further revisions following in 1857. The concept of fine art established in the copyright statute of 1857 was based on the image of an artwork as a unique manual product that was different from a mechanical reproduction devoid of any traces of authorship. The development of the art market and the progress of the image-making technologies, however, forced Russian legislators to adjust their legal criteria. The role played by photography was central in the process. The new visual medium overturned old assessments that were grounded in traditional opposition between unique and mass production. Thus, the copyright statute of 1911 was much more focused on artworks as intellectual values rather than tangible things. The Russian copyright rules entrenched the supremacy of inventive personal creativity over the copying and multiplication of art objects. However, in Lithuania, the law for protecting the rights of artists remained unenforced. The principal causes of the law’s ineffectiveness were rooted in the archaic forms of local art market and the conservative features of regional culture. This is why during the nineteenth century the idea of individual rights and the call for personal artistic freedom was manifested only on a theoretical level, while in practice the commitment to the common interests and retrospective ideals prevailed, encouraging Lithuanian painters and sculptors to replicate canonical works. The only known case of protecting personal intellectual property was related not to traditional fine art but to photography. In 1874, a Vilnius-based photographer Józef Czechowicz applied to the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg and received an official confirmation of authorship for twenty-five of his photographic prints. It was an extraordinary event not only in Lithuanian provinces but also throughout the Russian Empire. Not coincidentally, the first attempt to appeal to the copyright law was made by an artist representing new visual media and working in the field closely connected to the sphere of technical reproduction and commerce. The copyright statute of 1911 was a relatively progressive legal act. After 1918, it was translated into Lithuanian and remained in effect until 1940, i.e. during the entire existence of the Republic of Lithuania. The fact that the government of a young independent state didn’t try to draft its own original copyright rules testifies not only to the progressiveness of the imperial document but also to the insignificance of the questions concerning authorship, intellectual property and artistic rights in the interwar period.
Visual Art