Supreme Court to decide copyright battle over Warhol's Prince paintings

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide a copyright issue between a photographer and Andy Warhol's estate concerning Warhol's 1984 paintings of the rock star Prince.

The justices are examining the Andy Warhol Foundation's appeal of a lower court ruling that his paintings - using a photo of pop star Prince taken by photographer Lynn Goldsmith for Newsweek in 1981 - were not protected by the copyright law regarding their fair use. This law allows unlicensed use of copyright-protected material under special circumstances.

Photographer Goldsmith, 74, in turn sued Warhol's estate for infringement in 2017 over Warhol's unlicensed paintings of Prince after the foundation asked a Manhattan federal court to find that his paintings did not violate her rights. Warhol often based his art on photographs by others.

Goldsmith, who said she didn’t know about the unlicensed works until after Prince died in 2016, asked the court to block Warhol's estate from making further use of them and requested an amount of money damages.

A judge ruled that Warhol's paintings were protected against Goldsmith's claims by virtue of the fair-use law, finding they transformed the photographer’s portrayal of Prince from a ‘vulnerable human being’ into something ‘iconic and larger-than-life.’

After Goldsmith challenged that decision, the New York U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Warhol's paintings had in fact not made fair use of the photo, allowing Goldsmith's case to continue.

The Appeals Court found that a transformative work must have a ‘fundamentally different and new artistic purpose and character,’ and that Warhol's depictions were ‘much closer to presenting the same work in a different form.’

The Warhol Foundation asked the Supreme Court to overturn the 2nd Circuit decision, arguing that it created legal uncertainty for an entire genre of art like Andy Warhol's. In response the photographer, Goldsmith said that she looks forward to continuing her legal battle at the Supreme level.

The Foundation originally sued Goldsmith to obtain a ruling that it could use her photograph without asking permission or paying anything for her work. She decided to fight this on principal in order to protect not only her own rights, but the rights of all photographers and visual artists to make a living by licensing their own creative work.

In 1994, a Supreme Court ruling on fair use involving artistic creation, found that rap group 2 Live Crew's version of Roy Orbison's ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ had made fair use of Orbison's song.