The artist Andy Warhol was famous (or notorious, depending on your opinion of Pop Art) for finding new, explosively colorful ways of portraying people and everyday objects.
Though he died in 1987, a recent federal court ruling now brings the subject of Warhol’s “appropriations” back into the art world consciousness.
This case revolved around Warhol’s reimagining of a series of portraits of the late singer Prince taken by famous photographer Lynn Goldsmith.
Playing the role of judge and art critic, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York John Koeltl wrote that Warhol’s usage of the photo constituted fair usage of Goldsmith’s 1981 copyrighted work.
“The Prince Series works can reasonably be perceived to have transformed Prince from a vulnerable, uncomfortable person to an iconic, larger-than-life figure,” Koeltl wrote. “The humanity Prince embodies in Goldsmith’s photograph is gone. Moreover, each Prince series work is immediately recognizable as a ‘Warhol’ rather than as a photograph of Prince.”
In 1984, the magazine Vanity Fair purchased a one-time license for one of Goldsmith’s photos for Warhol to transform it into his iconic style. Warhol then went on to create a series of 16 portraits of The Purple One.
In 2016, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts then licensed one of Warhol’s Prince works to Vanity Fair parent company Condé Nast for $10,000 for use after Prince’s death. Goldsmith argued that licensing violated her opportunity to profit off her copyrighted work.
While the Warhol Foundation argued, and Koeltl agreed, that Warhol’s images were substantial reimagining’s of the original source work, Goldsmith deemed it straight appropriation.
In determining whether Warhol’s work counted as Fair Use, Koeltl likely considered the following four factors laid out in the Copyright Act:
There are no specific guidelines for what constitutes fair usage. However, Warhol is no stranger to these arguments. While Campbell’s Soup appreciated the free publicity, according to the Revolver Gallery, which is devoted entirely to Warhol’s career and works, a photographer sued him 1966 over his usage of her flower photos. The case led Warhol to develop a passion for photography. The Prince works were some of his last famous pieces before his death.