Supreme Court Rules Against Andy Warhol Foundation in Prince Image Case

On Thursday, May 18, 2023, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling in a copyright dispute between the Andy Warhol Foundation and rock-and-roll photographer Lynn Goldsmith. The case involved a series of silkscreen images that Warhol created based on a 1981 photo of Prince that Goldsmith took for Newsweek magazine. The court ruled 7-2 that Warhol infringed on Goldsmith’s copyright when he used her photo as the source material for his artworks.

a Rolling Stone magazine with Prince on the cover surrounded by other memorabilia

On Thursday, May 18, 2023, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling in a copyright dispute between the Andy Warhol Foundation and rock-and-roll photographer Lynn Goldsmith. The case involved a series of silkscreen images that Warhol created based on a 1981 photo of Prince that Goldsmith took for Newsweek magazine. The court ruled 7-2 that Warhol infringed on Goldsmith’s copyright when he used her photo as the source material for his artworks.

The Background of the Case

The dispute began in 2016, when the Andy Warhol Foundation licensed one of Warhol’s images of Prince, titled Orange Prince, to Conde Nast for use in its publication Vanity Fair. The magazine used the image to accompany an article about Prince, who had died earlier that year. Goldsmith, who owns the copyright to her Prince photo, sued the foundation for copyright infringement, claiming that Warhol’s image was a derivative work of her photo and that she did not authorize its use.

The foundation argued that Warhol’s image was a fair use of Goldsmith’s photo, because it transformed the original into a new and distinctive work of art. It also claimed that Goldsmith’s photo was not sufficiently original or creative to merit copyright protection.

In 2018, a federal district court ruled in favor of the Andy Warhol Foundation, finding that Warhol’s image was transformative enough to invoke fair use protection. The court said that Warhol’s image had a different purpose and character from Goldsmith’s photo, because it commented on Prince’s celebrity status and persona, rather than his appearance. The court also said that Warhol’s image did not harm the market for Goldsmith’s photo, because they appealed to different audiences.

Goldsmith appealed the decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the district court’s ruling in 2020. The appeals court said that Warhol’s image did not transform Goldsmith’s photo to a sufficient degree to qualify as fair use, because it retained the essential elements of the original, such as Prince’s facial features and expression. The appeals court also said that Warhol’s image could harm the market for Goldsmith’s photo, because they both served as illustrations of Prince for magazines.

The foundation then petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case, which it agreed to do in 2021.

The Supreme Court’s Opinion

The Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court’s decision and ruled against the Andy Warhol Foundation. Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the court, joined by six other justices. Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The majority opinion focused on whether Warhol’s image had a different purpose and character from Goldsmith’s photo, which is one of the factors used to analyze fair use. The opinion said that both works shared substantially the same purpose, which was to illustrate magazine articles about Prince. It also said that both works were of a commercial nature, because they were created and licensed for profit.

The majority opinion rejected the foundation’s argument that Warhol’s image commented on Prince’s celebrity status and persona, saying that this was not evident from the image itself or from any evidence presented by the foundation. It also rejected the foundation’s argument that Warhol’s image had a different aesthetic from Goldsmith’s photo, saying that this was not relevant to fair use analysis.

The opinion concluded that Warhol’s image did not have a sufficiently distinct purpose and character from Goldsmith’s photo to constitute fair use. It said that Warhol did not alter or add anything significant to Goldsmith’s photo, but merely applied his signature style to it, and that this was not enough to transform the original into a new work of art.

The opinion also briefly addressed the other factors used to analyze fair use, such as the nature of the original work, the amount and substantiality of the copying, and the effect on the potential market. It said that these factors did not weigh in favor of fair use either.

The dissenting opinion criticized the majority opinion for downplaying Warhol’s artistic creativity and expression. The dissent said that Warhol’s image did transform Goldsmith’s photo into a new work of art, because it changed its meaning and message. The dissent said that Warhol’s image commented on Prince’s fame and identity as a pop icon, rather than his physical appearance. The dissent also said that Warhol’s image had a different aesthetic from Goldsmith’s photo, because it used bright colors and simplified shapes to create a stylized portrait.

The dissent argued that the majority opinion would stifle artistic innovation and expression by limiting fair use protection for works based on existing materials. The dissent said that many works of art are inspired by or derived from other works of art, and that this should not be discouraged by copyright law.

The Implications of the Ruling

The ruling is a significant victory for photographers and other creators who own copyrighted content upon which other works are based. It gives them more control over how their works are used and licensed by others. It also protects them from unauthorized appropriation or exploitation of their works by famous artists or entities.

The ruling is a setback for artists who make new works based on existing materials. It potentially limits their ability to invoke fair use protection for their works when they are challenged by copyright holders. It also creates more uncertainty and risk for them when they create or license their works.

The ruling could have considerable impact on various creative industries, such as publishing, music, film, fashion, and advertising. It could also affect how these industries produce and distribute works based on existing materials, and it could affect how these industries negotiate contracts and licenses with creators and copyright holders.

The ruling will likely spark more litigation over fair use issues in similar cases involving works based on existing materials. It will also likely prompt more debate over how to balance artistic freedom and expression with intellectual property rights and protection.

You can read the full Supreme Court decision here.