Warhol silkscreens case heard by SCOTUS

On Behalf of | Oct 21, 2022 | Copyright Law, Intellectual Property Litigation |

Lynn Goldsmith was hired to photograph Prince in 1981 for a Newsweek article just as the musician’s star was rising. The photographer was famous for shooting musicians’ portraits and album covers. She shot him performing live and invited him to her studio for more composed shots, where she toyed with lighting and had him wear eye shadow and lip gloss. The magazine ended up choosing a live photo for the story.

Then in 1984, when Prince became a superstar with the Purple Rain movie and soundtrack, Vanity Fair bought rights for $400 to one of Goldsmith’s portraits. The black and white photo was then used by Andy Warhol as a reference for one of his famous silkscreen interpretations, as he had done with Elizabeth Taylor and others. Hired to do one “Illustration of Prince” for the article, Warhol did 16 variations as a series and registered the copyrights.

Vanity Fair returned to the Warhol foundation in 2016 and paid $10,250 for the use of “Orange Prince” silkscreen from the series for the cover of a tribute publication to the artist after his death. Goldsmith received no additional money at that time. The photographer eventually sued the foundation, claiming copyright infringement of her copyrighted photo that Warhol used. The case could mean millions in unpaid licensing royalties and fees.

Moving through the courts

In 2019, we wrote about a lower court ruling by a federal judge in New York who concluded that Warhol did not infringe because his interpretation fell within the confines of fair use. This was justified because:

  • Fair use allows for the use of copyrighted material if the purpose or character of use is changed
  • The image used a small amount of the photo’s original creative elements
  • The photo print and silkscreen images have different licensing markets

However, a three-judge panel from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the ruling, stating that the courts should not weigh in as an art critic and seek to determine the meaning of the works.

The case could be hugely influential

The outcome of this case could have a far-reaching impact if the Court rules in favor of Goldsmith as the original artist rather than the Warhol foundation and other artists using preexisting source material to create new works. The ruling impacts such areas as the art world, music, poster art, documentaries, and even AI creations. The Supreme Court received about three dozen friend of the court briefs from interested parties on both sides of the issue from organizations involved in motion pictures, digital media, music recordings, television, and television and news outlets.

Those  with questions or concerns regarding this case and any potential legal changes can speak with an attorney who understands the nuanced ins and outs of copyright law and intellectual property litigation.