Fair Use at the U.S. Supreme Court? The Andy Warhol Case

By: Lauren Liu

In our modern society where information is exchanged at lightspeed and entertainment choices are abundant, copyright infringement has become a more widespread issue than ever. The 1976 Copyright Act harmonized copyright law with free-expression principles, and for the first time, incorporated the concept of “fair use.” If the use of a copyrighted work is “fair use,” then it does not infringe on the original author’s copyright. However, the Fair Use Doctrine, and even copyright as a whole, can seem very conflicting in terms of its purposes. On one hand, copyright offers exclusive rights to copyright owners to protect their work and profitability. On the other hand, the exception of fair use allows others to use and alter the original work without permission from the copyright owner. In 2022, the case alleging the Andy Warhol Foundation of copyright infringement was the center of copyright law. The case raises questions surrounding copyright law and the Fair Use Doctrine. How are we supposed to define the line between fair use and copyright infringement? How can we protect copyright without jeopardizing freedom of expression?

The Copyright Act of 1976 provides that “the fair use of a copyrighted work is not an infringement of copyright.” 17 U.S.C.A. § 107. To determine whether an allegedly infringing use is “fair use,” courts need to consider four factors: (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial or for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The case of Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, INC., v. Lynn Goldsmith involves the commercial licensing of a silkscreen image that Andy Warhol had created based on respondent Lynn Goldsmith’s copyrighted photograph. The Supreme Court of the United States recently granted this case certiorari. The question mainly focuses on the first element of fair use, and examines whether or not the petitioner, Andy Warhol Foundation (the Foundation), has established that its licensing of the silkscreen image was a “transformative” use, and that this factor should weigh in its favor. The Court will likely look closely at whether or not the transformative use can be established simply by showing that the image conveys a meaning or message different from that of respondent’s original photograph.

The Appellate Court’s decision focused on the first and most important statutory factor: the purpose and character of the use. The purpose of this factor is to distinguish the original creator’s use and the second author’s use of the original work. Although some copying of the original will often be necessary or at least useful in making the second author’s expression clearer and more effective, the second author has to demonstrate that the second work is unlikely to supersede the original. In this case, the Supreme Court will possibly find that the Foundation’s allegedly infringing use served the same purpose—depicting Prince in an article published by a popular magazine—for which Goldsmith’s photographs have frequently been used. Furthermore, although the Foundation argued that the Prince Series was intended for communicating a message about celebrity, the Foundation has not attempted to establish that it needed to reproduce the creative elements of the Goldsmith Photograph in order to communicate that message. The Supreme Court might find that when examining this factor and all other factors, the Foundation’s use of the original work does not meet the requirements for “fair use”, and will likely rule in favor of Goldsmith.

As the legal and artistic worlds wait for a final judgment from the Supreme Court, it is worth noting that the Appellate Court’s ruling and many other “fair use” cases have already created a balance between protecting copyrighted works and allowing other creative expressions. As one of the most popular and well-regarded modern artists, Andy Warhol’s works not only bring aesthetic values to the art world, but also inspire so much creativity. However, it is obvious that many of his works contain elements drawn from public figures and other existing works. Thus, his works can become quite controversial in terms of copyright law. More broadly speaking, in the artistic world, permitting secondary users to copy protected works to a certain degree will facilitate new and creative artistic expressions. However, when such copying becomes unnecessary for the secondary user’s work, the use risks jeopardizing the original author’s rights over the original art. Such unnecessary copying also risks diminishing artists’ incentive to create future original works. Although the fair use of copyrighted works has to be determined on a case-by-case basis, the doctrine helps avoid extreme exclusions or permissions in copyright infringement cases. Creative endeavors should not be deterred by a system that categorically precludes all unauthorized uses of copyrighted works, nor should they be protected by allowing indiscriminate copying.