US Supreme Court rules against artist Warhol in copyright case

The court rules that Warhol should have paid photographer a fee for use of her photo of singer Prince in a project.

andy warhol
Artist Andy Warhol and the musician Prince were both centre stage Wednesday in a case at the US Supreme Court [File: Richard Drew/The Associated Press]

The United States Supreme Court has ruled against the estate of prolific pop artist Andy Warhol, saying the works he made using other people’s photography were not immune from copyright claims.

The ruling on Friday upheld a lower court ruling in a lawsuit brought by celebrity photographer Lynn Goldsmith in relation to a 1981 photograph she had taken of singer Prince. Warhol had used the image in his Orange Prince series, which included 14 silkscreens and two pencil illustrations of the photo, most of which were not authorised by the photographer.

The case was watched closely in the art world and entertainment industry for its implications regarding the legal doctrine called fair use, which promotes freedom of expression by allowing the use of copyright-protected works under certain circumstances without the owner’s permission.

Courts typically determine if a new work has a “transformative” purpose such as parody, education or criticism.

An appeals court had previously reversed a lower court ruling that Warhol’s art transformed Goldsmith’s depiction of a “vulnerable” musician into a “larger-than-life” figure.

The appeals court said that Warhol’s paintings were closer to adapting Goldsmith’s photo in a different medium than transforming it.

Its ruling said that judges should not “assume the role of art critic” by considering its meaning, but instead decide whether the new work has a different artistic purpose and character from the old one.

Andy Warhol
The 1964 silkscreen image Shot Sage Blue Marilyn by Andy Warhol is carried in Christie’s showroom in New York City [File: Ted Shaffrey/The Associated Press]

The Supreme Court’s last ruling on fair use in art was in 1994, when it said that rap group 2 Live Crew’s parody of singer Roy Orbison’s song Oh, Pretty Woman made fair use of the 1960s hit.

Warhol is credited as a leading figure of the pop-art movement of the 1960s, which dealt with takes on celebrity culture and advertising. He worked across several mediums.

In 2022, his silkscreen Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, depicting actress Marilyn Monroe, sold for $195m, setting the record for the most expensive work by a US artist sold at auction.

Source: News Agencies