U.S. Supreme Court tackles Andy Warhol copyright dispute

The US Supreme Court on Wednesday weighed a copyright dispute between a photographer and Andy Warhol’s estate over the famous artist’s paintings of rock star Prince in a case that could help set boundaries for artworks based on other material. The judges heard arguments in the Andy Warhol Foundation’s appeal against a lower court’s ruling that his 1984 paintings — based on a 1981 photograph of Prince taken by famed photographer Lynn Goldsmith for Newsweek magazine in 1981 — are not protected by a copyright doctrine called fair use. This doctrine permits the unlicensed use of copyrighted works under certain circumstances.

The judges harried attorneys representing both sides and President Joe Biden’s administration for nearly two hours, seeking clear answers to complex questions about when art can legally benefit from other works. Copyright law sometimes allows fair use of copyrighted works without the permission of the creator. A key factor that courts consider when determining fair use is whether it has a “transformative” purpose, such as parody, education, or criticism.

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Some judges expressed skepticism about a lower court’s decision that judges should not consider the importance of an artistic work in determining fair use, but also questioned whether Warhol’s work was transformative. “The purpose of all copyright laws is to encourage creativity,” said Liberal Judge Elena Kagan.

“So why shouldn’t we ask,” Kagan added, if a work is truly creative and “something new and very different”? Questions and answers during the altercations touched on a wide range of artistic creations, from Leonardo da Vinci’s 16″ Mona Lisa painting to even Syracuse University sporting goods.

The argument over where to draw the line between inspiration and abuse has sparked widespread interest in its impact on artists and the broader entertainment industry. Warhol, who died in 1987, was a central figure in the pop art movement that emerged in the 1950s. He often created screenprints and other works inspired by photographs of famous subjects and commercial products – works that have considerable artistic and financial value.

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For example, Warhol’s 1964 silkscreen portrait of actress Marilyn Monroe was purchased in May for $195 million, setting a record for a work by an American artist at auction. Warhol made 14 silkscreens and two pencil illustrations inspired by Goldsmith’s photograph. Goldsmith, 74, said she only found out about Warhol’s unlicensed work after Prince’s death in 2016. She sued Warhol’s estate for copyright infringement in 2017 after it asked a Manhattan federal court to rule that his works did not infringe her rights.

A federal judge found Warhol’s works were protected by the fair use doctrine after he transformed the “vulnerable” musician depicted in Goldsmith’s work into an “iconic, larger-than-life figure.” In overturning that ruling last year, the Manhattan-based 2nd US Circuit of Appeals said judges “should not take on the role of an art critic trying to determine the intent behind or the meaning of the works,” but should instead decide whether that is new work that has done so has a “fundamentally different and new artistic purpose and character” that is “distinct from the ‘raw material’ from which it was made”.

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The Supreme Court has not ruled on fair use in art since 1994, when it found that rap group 2 Live Crew’s parody of singer Roy Orbison’s song “Oh, Pretty Woman” was the 1960s song fairly used. Biden’s government has backed Goldsmith, as have trade groups for the record industry, actors and publishers. Documentary filmmakers, fan fiction writers, and the estates of other major figures in the pop art movement all supported Warhol.

A verdict should be available by the end of June.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)


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