Copyright on fictional characters: when what makes a character iconic is the actor and not its creator

A recent ruling of the Court of Roma

Characters of literature, comics, television or cinema can be protected under Italian copyright law (Law n. 633 of 1941) like any other intellectual property work.  To be granted such rights, a character must display certain features. In particular, according to Italian jurisprudence, a character is a “subject which is the result of an autonomous and personal artistic creation by its creator and which contains such characteristics as to make it immediately recognizable on its own, as an expression of the creator’s artistic personality, even outside the context in which it was originally placed and invented”. These principles have been recently recalled by the Court of Rome which, last April denied the protection of authorship to “the man with no name”, the main character of the 1964 movie A Fistful of Dollars directed by Sergio Leone and produced by Unidis Jolly Film S.r.l. (sentence no. 6504 of April 16, 2021).

The dispute, which arose in July 2017, has pitted the film’s production company against several companies, both national and international, that in different capacities contributed to the production, distribution and broadcasting of the animated movie Rango, released in Italian theaters in 2012.

The plaintiff claimed that the brief appearance in the cartoon of a character called “the spirit of the West” constituted an unauthorized reprise of the famous “man with no name” played by Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti western trilogy consisting, in addition to the above-mentioned work, of For a Few Dollars More of 1965 and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of 1966 (although the latter were not produced by the plaintiff).  The Court, however, rejected the claims submitted by the plaintiff. According to the judges, “the man with no name” does not have the creative features of an authorial “character”, but simply reflects a figure who has achieved a certain celebrity due, more than to the characterization of the character itself, to the fame of the actor who played him and, indeed, the appearance of “the spirit of the West” in Rango is not really a reference “to the alleged character of Sergio Leone’s trilogy, but to the Hollywood star Clint Eastwood, widely known and immediately recognizable to the European and American audiences”.

In conclusion, in order to be protected, a character outlined with such features to become immediately recognizable to the public or to the critics, must necessarily be distinguished from the actor who impersonates him. As it happened to the characters of James Bond or Sherlock Holmes, who, characterized by a well-known and unique iconography, are certainly “subject to copyright as they are absolutely determined in the narrative context and potentially interpretable by a variety of actors and in totally different historical and geographical situations”; circumstances which have not, however, been found in the dispute in question.