The Supreme Court will take up a case relating to the late artist Andy Warhol and late musician Prince. The case revolves around Warhol’s creation of silkscreen prints depicting Prince and whether the artist infringed on a photographer’s copyright of the image he drew inspiration from.
Warhol Foundation lawyers called on the Supreme Court to take up the case after a lower court ruling threatened to upend US copyright laws. The case will focus on the fair use doctrine, an element of copyright law that allows content creators to use copyrighted material under specific conditions.
In this case, the topic in question is whether artists can incorporate images inspired by photographs into new works of art.
The Warhol Foundation argues that Andy Warhol created a transformative piece of art with his Prince Series. The silkscreens are “commenting on celebrity and consumerism,” according to the Foundation’s lawyers.
Warhol famously took existing images and recontextualized them as works of art. For instance, his famous Campbell’s Soup series took the corporate logo of a soup brand and turned it into high art as a comment on consumer culture.
The conditions behind the series’ origins also complicate the case. Vanity Fair magazine contracted Warhol to create the Prince Series in 1984. The artist used a photo taken by Lynn Goldsmith as a reference, but Vanity Fair had licensed the photo for use.
Foundation lawyer Roman Martinez argues that Warhol created significant alterations in tone, composition, and lighting that transformed the existing photograph into a unique work of art.
In 2016, Vanity Fair used the Prince silkscreen image in a tribute issue dedicated to the late musician. The Warhol Foundation preemptively sought a declaration of noninfringement from the US court system, but Goldsmith countered this with a copyright claim. She argues that the silkscreen series is essentially a photocopy of her image and that it infringes on her copyright.
A lower court initially ruled in favor of Warhol, arguing that his work conveyed a different message from Goldsmith’s photograph. However, a federal appeals court reversed this decision and noted the case could proceed to the Supreme Court.
Goldsmith’s lawyers implored the Supreme Court to stay out of the case, as they argued it is a cut-and-dry copyright infringement, not a complicated legal matter.
The Supreme Court will hear the case next term. It will likely set a resounding precedent for artists and fair use, no matter how the court rules.