The copyright dispute over the images of pop artist Andy Warhol


The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear a copyright dispute between photographer Lynn Goldsmith and the Andy Warhol Foundation over Warhol’s painting of rock star Prince

The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear a copyright dispute between photographer Lynn Goldsmith and the Andy Warhol Foundation over Warhol’s painting of rock star Prince.

The Supreme Court is set to rule on whether pop art legend Warhol infringed photographer Lynn Goldsmith’s copyright when he created one of his iconic series of paintings.

Judges have taken up the Andy Warhol Foundation’s appeal against a lower court’s ruling that his paintings were not protected by what it called “fair use” copyright doctrine.

The “fair use” doctrine permits the unlicensed use of copyrighted works under certain circumstances.

In 1984, Warhol made a series of paintings based on a 1981 photograph taken by Goldsmith of the pop star Prince.

Let’s learn more about the paintings, the photo and the copyright case:

Where did it all start?

In 1984, Goldsmith licensed one of her photos of Prince to Vanity Fair for use as a reference in an illustration. The photos were then passed to Warhol, who used his signature process to create a new version of the original image. The Warhol version of the photo was then used by Vanity Fair in their print edition and credited to Goldsmith.

Meanwhile, Warhol also created more than a dozen other versions of the photograph, which became known in the art world as the Prince series.

The Prince series includes 14 screenprints and two pencil illustrations.

Painting by Andy Warhol. Image Courtesy: Courtesy US District Court/The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

Goldsmith has claimed all of this happened without her knowledge. She learned of this alleged copyright infringement when Prince died in 2016 and Vanity Fair used one of the Warhol versions for their memorial cover for the singer.

After seeing a version of her work on the cover of Vanity Fair, Goldsmith contacted the Warhol Foundation, threatening legal action for copyright infringement.

The foundation then sued Goldsmith in federal court, seeking a ruling that she did not violate any copyright laws.

The Litigation – Round 1

In 2019, New York Southern District Judge John G. Koeltl returned summary judgment in favor of the Warhol Foundation.

The district court concluded that Warhol’s Prince series was “transformative” because while the photo portrayed Prince as “a vulnerable human being,” the Prince series portrayed him as an “iconic, larger-than-life figure.”

It noted that an observer would perceive Warhol’s work as employing a “different character, a new expression, and a new aesthetic [distinct] creative and communicative results” compared to the original by Goldsmith.

Goldsmith then asked the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to review Koeltel’s decision.

The Litigation – Round 2

The Second Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision and sided with Goldsmith.

The New York-based 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals found that Warhol’s paintings had made improper use of the photograph.

It ruled that a transformative work must have a “fundamentally different and new artistic purpose and character” and that Warhol’s paintings “were much closer to presenting the same work in a different form”.

Last December, the Warhol Foundation asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Second Circuit’s decision, saying it had created “a cloud of legal uncertainty” for an entire art genre like Warhol’s.

With contributions from agencies

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