The US Supreme Court ruled today, May 18, that the late Pop artist Andy Warhol was not entitled to photographer Lynn Goldsmith’s original black-and-white portrait of the late singer Prince in a print that was published by a magazine in 2016. In a seven-to-two vote, the court rejected the Andy Warhol Foundation’s claim that the silkscreen was “transformative” enough to justify fair use. The long-running case has been closely watched by the art community, as the decision sets a precedent for copyright protections and fair use limitations.
“I am thrilled by today’s decision and thankful to the Supreme Court for hearing our side of the story,” Goldsmith told Hyperallergic in a statement. “This is a great day for photographers and other artists who make a living by licensing their art. This legal battle has been a long road at great emotional and financial impact upon me and my family. I felt I had to risk everything we had financially in order fight in the courts for protection of my rights and those of all in the arts against those who would infringe.”
“I hope this SCOTUS ruling is a lesson that people should not shy away from legally standing up for their rights when organizations, foundations, or individuals who have greater financial resources intimidate them with legal costs,” Goldsmith added.
The court case revolved around one image in particular from Warhol’s Prince series, “Orange Prince.” In 1984, Vanity Fair originally paid Goldsmith $400 to license her portrait of Prince as an “artist reference” for Warhol, who was commissioned to create an image to accompany an article covering the singer’s musical rise. As part of the arrangement, Vanity Fair had agreed to credit Goldsmith and guaranteed that the license to use her photograph would apply “one time” only.
But in 2016, Vanity Fair paid the Warhol Foundation $10,250 to use another screenprint from Warhol’s series, “Orange Prince,” to feature in a special issue commemorating the musician’s legacy after his death. This time, Goldsmith received no credit or payment. In 2017, she filed a lawsuit against the foundation, which refused to compensate her for the second cover image.
“Goldsmith’s original works, like those of other photographers, are entitled to copyright protection, even against famous artists,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion.
Sotomayor went on to explain that fair use of copyrighted material stands if “the use has a purpose and character that is sufficiently distinct from the original.” In this case, the court found that both Goldsmith’s original photo and “Orange Prince” “share substantially the same commercial purpose,” as they were used as illustrations for magazine articles.
In a strongly worded dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan and Chief Justice John Roberts said the majority ruling will “stifle creativity of every sort,” “thwart the expression of new ideas and the attainment of new knowledge,” and “make our world poorer.”
“Warhol is a towering figure in modern art not despite but because of his use of source materials,” Kagan wrote. “If Warhol does not get credit for transformative copying, who will? And when artists less famous than Warhol cannot benefit from fair use, it will matter even more.”
Joel Wachs, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation, told Hyperallergic in a statement that the foundation “respectfully disagrees” with the court’s decision.
“At the same time, we welcome the Court’s clarification that its decision is limited to that single licensing and does not question the legality of Andy Warhol’s creation of the Prince series in 1984,” Wachs said. “Going forward, we will continue standing up for the rights of artists to create transformative works under the Copyright Act and the First Amendment.”
Editor’s note 5/20/23 3:44pm EDT: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the Supreme Court ruling as applying to see Warhol’s Prince series. The article has been corrected to reflect that the ruling refers specifically to “Orange Prince” and its licensing by Vanity Fair in 2016.