Explained: The copyright row over pop artist Andy Warhol’s paintings

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

The Supreme Court will decide whether the pop-art legend, Warhol, violated photographer Lynn Goldsmith’s copyright when creating one of his iconic series of paintings.

The justices have taken up the Andy Warhol Foundation’s appeal of a lower court ruling that his paintings were not protected by the copyright law doctrine called “fair use”.

The “fair use” doctrine permits unlicensed use of copyright-protected works under certain circumstances.

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

Let’s find out more about the paintings, the photograph and the copyright case:

Where did it all begin?

In 1984, Goldsmith licensed one of her photographs of Prince to Vanity Fair for use as a reference in an illustration. The photographs was then passed along to Warhol, who used his signature process to create a new version of the original image. The Warhol version of the photograph was then used by Vanity Fair in its print issue and credited it to Goldsmith.

Meanwhile, Warhol also created more than a dozen other versions of the photograph, which came to be known as the Prince Series in the art world.

The Prince Series includes 14 silkscreen prints and two pencil illustrations.

Explained The copyright row over pop artist Andy Warhols paintings

Paintings created by Andy Warhol. Image courtesy: Courtesy of the U.S. District Court/The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

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

After seeing a version of her work on the cover of Vanity Fair, Goldsmith approached the Warhol Foundation and threatened legal action over copyright infringement.

The Foundation in response sued Goldsmith in federal court, seeking a ruling that it hadn’t violated any copyright laws.

The legal battle- round 1

In 2019, Southern District of New York judge John G Koeltl granted summary judgment in favour 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 depicted him as an “iconic, larger-than-life figure”.

It noted that an observer would perceive that Warhol’s work has a “different character, a new expression, and employs new aesthetics with [distinct] creative and communicative results” when compared to the Goldsmith original.

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

The legal battle – round 2

The Second Circuit overruled 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 not made fair use of the photo.

It 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.”

In December last year, the Warhol Foundation asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Second Circuit decision, stating that it created “a cloud of legal uncertainty” for an entire genre of art like Warhol’s.

With inputs from agencies

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