Copyright Dispute Over Andy Warhol’s Portraits of Prince Heading to U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court will review the standard for a “transformative” work as “fair use” under the Copyright Act.   Specifically, whether a second work of art is “transformative” when it conveys a different meaning or message from its source material, or not where it recognizably derives from and retains the essential elements of its source material.

The Court agreed to review the Second Circuit’s decision that Andy Warhol’s Prince Series portraits of the musician Prince did not make fair use of celebrity photographer Lynn Goldsmith’s photograph of Prince.  Andy Warhol Found. for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith, No. 21-869 (petition granted Mar. 28, 2022).   

The Warhol Foundation’s (AWF) petition argues that the Second Circuit’s decision contradicts Supreme Court precedent that a new work is “transformative” if it has a new “meaning or message” citing Google LLC v. Oracle Am., Inc., 141 S. Ct. 1183, 1202-03 (2021) (quoting Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 579 (1994).  AWF also argued that the Second Circuit’s decision creates a circuit split where the Ninth Circuit has held that even with few physical changes a work can be transformative if new expressive content or a new message is apparent.  As a result, this decision “threatens massive restrictions on First Amendment expression” that would create a “sea-change in the law of copyright.” 

Goldsmith’s opposition brief asserts that the AWF mischaracterizes Supreme Court precedent.  And that the Second Circuit “faithfully applied” the proper test for transformativeness in determining Warhol’s series of silkscreen prints were not fair use.  Goldsmith also argues petitioner has manufactured a circuit split that does not exist.

This dispute stems from a a declaratory judgment action filed in 2017 by the Andy Warhol Foundation in the Southern District of New York seeking that Warhol’s portraits of Prince did not infringe photographer Lynn Goldsmith’s photograph.  In 2019, the district court granted summary judgment to the Warhol Foundation, holding that the Prince Series was “transformative” because it incorporated a new meaning and message different from Goldsmith’s photograph.

In 2021, the Second Circuit reversed, holding that Warhol’s portraits were not fair use as a matter of law.  The Second Circuit held that Warhol’s use was not “transformative,” even though Warhol’s use included some visual differences from Goldsmith’s photograph, because Warhol’s use “retains the essential elements of the Goldsmith Photograph without significantly adding to or altering those elements.”

Multiple amicus briefs supporting the Warhol Foundation were filed including by a group of 12 copyright law professors; a group of 13 art law professors; artists and art professors Barbara Kruger and Robert Storr; and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, and Brooklyn Museum.  The visual arts community and content creators in every industry will heavily watch this case.

The Supreme Court will hear the Warhol case in its new term, which begins in October. 

By Susan M. Kayser and Eric W. Lee

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