US Supreme Court to Decide Copyright Fight over Warhol’s Prince Paintings

In a case that could help clarify when and how artists can make use of the work of others, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide a copyright dispute between a photographer and Andy Warhol’s estate over Warhol’s 1984 paintings of rock star Prince.

The justices took up the Andy Warhol Foundation’s appeal of a lower court ruling that his paintings – based on a photo of Prince that photographer Lynn Goldsmith had shot for Newsweek magazine in 1981 – were not protected by the copyright law doctrine called fair use. This doctrine permits unlicensed use of copyright-protected works under certain circumstances.

Goldsmith sued Warhol’s estate in 2017 in Manhattan federal court over Warhol’s unlicensed paintings of Prince. Warhol, who died in 1987, often based his art on photographs. Goldsmith, who has said she did not learn about the unlicensed works until after Prince died in 2016, asked the court to block Warhol’s estate from making further use of her work and for an unspecified amount of money damages.

A judge ruled that Warhol’s works were protected against Goldsmith’s infringement claims by the fair use doctrine, finding they transformed Goldsmith’s portrayal of Prince as a “vulnerable human being” by depicting him as an “iconic, larger-than-life figure.”

After Goldsmith challenged that decision, the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year found that Warhol’s paintings had not made fair use of the photo, allowing Goldsmith’s case to proceed.

The 2nd Circuit decided 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.”

The Andy Warhol Foundation asked the Supreme Court in December to overturn the 2nd Circuit decision, arguing that it created “a cloud of legal uncertainty” for an entire genre of art like Warhol’s. 

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