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Supreme Court decides IP case involving Warhol, Prince

On Behalf of | Jun 29, 2023 | Copyright Law

Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling on a case that has been making news for what it means for IP law for years. The case involved silk screen images created by artist Andy Warhol of the musician Prince back in 1981. The colorful series sometimes called “Orange Prince” used a copyrighted photo taken by photographer Lynn Goldsmith.

Goldsmith didn’t sue, however, until the magazine Vanity Fair ran one of the photos after Prince died in 2016. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (AWF) had licensed the photo to Vanity Fair’s publisher Conde Nast. 

The photographer argued that she had licensed the use of her photo for Warhol to turn into his work and allowed Vanity Fair to publish it nearly 40 years ago. However, she claimed that this was a one-time use for which she was paid. The use in 2016 was unlicensed.

The Court’s ruling was 7-2

The majority of the Supreme Court sided with the photographer. It ruled that Warhol had been guilty of copyright infringement when he first created his images based on her photo. 

The 7-2 ruling written by Justice Sonya Sotomayor said in part, “Goldsmith’s original works, like those of other photographers, are entitled to copyright protection, even against famous artists….The use of a copyrighted work may nevertheless be fair if, among other things, the use has a purpose and character that is sufficiently distinct from the original. In this case, however, Goldsmith’s original photograph of Prince, and AWF’s copying use of that photograph in an image licensed to a special edition magazine devoted to Prince, share substantially the same purpose, and the use is of a commercial nature.”

That had been the underlying issue of the case as it made its way through the courts: Did Warhol’s work change the original photo enough that it wasn’t a copyright violation? 

The dissent, written by Justice Elena Kagan, said the ruling “will impede new art and music and literature. It will thwart the expression of new ideas and the attainment of new knowledge. It will make our world poorer.”

This decision, which is largely supported by legal experts, can help clarify similar issues regarding the use of copyrighted material to create something new for commercial use. While most IP cases don’t make it to the Supreme Court, all have complexities that require sound legal guidance to navigate. If you have intellectual property to protect, you need an attorney on your side.