The (Purple) Reign of Fair Use: Certiorari Granted for Warhol’s Portrait of Prince

By: Erika Hammer

Amongst several IP-focused cases this year having requested review by the Supreme Court, the high court has recently granted certiorari for a case involving copyright, fair use, and some famous individuals: artist Andy Warhol and musician Prince. The case focuses on whether a work is “transformative” under fair use, a major defense to copyright infringement. Notably, fair use is considered to be one of the most important exceptions to copyright law’s general monopoly grant of intelelctual property rights to authors of original works, as well as a major cornerstone for promoting artistic expression, access to knowledge, and dissemination of ideas. 

The case, Andy Warhol Foundation v. Goldsmith, arises from a set of portraits created by Andy Warhol, whose pieces often draw from preexisting works (e.g., a Marilyn Monroe photograph or a can of Campbell’s soup). The specific pieces at issue are portraits of Prince based on a Vanity Fair photograph taken by Lynn Goldsmith. The petition for certiorari describes how Warhol, via silkscreen printing, “cropped the image to remove Prince’s torso, resized it, altered the angle of Prince’s face, and changed tones, lighting, and detail” as well as “added layers of bright and unnatural colors, conspicuous hand-drawn outlines and line screens, and stark black shading that exaggerated Prince’s features.” 

Post-litigation, the district court granted the Andy Warhol Foundation summary judgment in favor of its fair use defense, deeming the use “transformative” for communicating a different meaning and message from the original Goldsmith work. However, the Second Circuit reversed, despite acknowledging that the two artists’ pieces represented different messages. It stated, “while the cumulative effect of those alterations may change the Goldsmith Photograph in ways that give a different impression of its subject, the Goldsmith Photograph remains the recognizable foundation upon which the Prince Series is built.” 

As the Andy Warhol Foundation argued in its petition for certiorari, the Second Circuit’s analysis focuses on the visual resemblances between the works. The Foundation further opines that this decision is creating a circuit split and highlights that the Ninth Circuit has held that a work of art is “transformative” when it portrays a different meaning or message from the original source. 

This case is significant not only because of the famous individuals involved, but also because it involves one of the most crucial doctrines in modern copyright law. Fair use, which is set forth in 17 U.S.C § 107, is the most wide-ranging limitation on copyright protection that attempts to promote the expression of artistic works. Fair use is also grounded in the goals of promoting common culture and enabling technological advancement. As such, highly creative works like Andy Warhol’s would appear to be exactly the kind of follow-on creativity that fair use is intended to not only protect, but to promote. 

Even if a work is highly creative, it must be examined under four factors used in determining whether there is a qualified fair use defense. These four factors include: (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit, educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market. The Second Circuit found that each of these factors weighed in favor of Goldsmith.

Under the first factor, the more transformative a use is, the more likely said use is deemed to be fair. A foundational fair use case, Campbell v. Acuff Rose, emphasized transformative use as a critical factor. Transformative use is often seen as adding new, creative expression or changing the purpose or character of the copyrighted work. The more transformative a use is, the less significant the other fair use factors will be in the analysis. Typically, if a court finds transformative use under the first factor, that factor tends to strongly influence the inquiry into the rest of the fair use factors. 

With transformative use being such a crucial factor in fair use, which is of itself a crucial doctrine in copyright law, it comes as no surprise that the Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case. Despite the fact that Andy Warhol’s artwork appears to transform Prince’s depiction “from a vulnerable, uncomfortable person to an iconic, larger-than-life figure,” as described by the district court, this paradigm of the transformative nature of the work did not pass muster in the Second Circuit. 

In contrast, other prior Second Circuit cases that have been seminal in the “transformative” aspect of fair use have allowed use of the defense even when the original work is still a “recognizable foundation” to the subsequent piece at issue. Graham v. Dorling Kindersley held that a Grateful Dead biography that used copyrighted, original posters was fair use because they served a different purpose, despite the entirety of the original work being used in the follow-on biography. However, in opposition to certiorari, Goldsmith argues that the Warhol silkscreens shared the same purpose as Goldsmith’s copyrighted photograph, as well as the same essential artistic elements.

How the Supreme Court comes out on this decision – whether a different message or meaning is sufficient for transformation under fair use despite facial similarities – will be very important in copyright jurisprudence and the scope of fair use. 

Where Will the Purple Rain Fall?

Prince 2

By Kelsey O’Neal

Prince will remain one of the greatest musicians in American history; he prolifically produced music since 1978 and sold approximately 36 million albums. He was also one of a few musicians who owned his own master recordings. This ownership did not come easily, but resulted from a copyright war he engaged in with Warner Bros in the 1990’s. As a form of protest against the recording company and to gain control of his masters from the recording studio, the artist changed his name to an unpronounceable “Love Symbol” and even appeared on stage with the word “slave” emblazoned on his forehead. His battle with Warner stemmed, mostly, from his desire to release more music than the label was willing to sponsor.

More recently, Prince struggled with how easily consumers could access his music in the digital era. Many recall that he sued a woman for posting a video of her daughter dancing to “Let’s Go Crazy,” one of his iconic pop songs, on YouTube. Prince sent a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice to YouTube, which led the woman to sue, claiming her upload constituted fair use of the song. Continue reading