A Princely Pickle: Supreme Court Edition

We spent the last two posts diving into Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith and some of the cases leading up to it. You can read those posts here and here. 

Now, let’s turn to the oral argument before the Supreme Court and the Justices’ questions for the parties in that case. 

As the appellant, the Warhol Foundation went first. Its central argument was that Warhol’s changes to Lynn Goldsmith’s photo of Prince gave Warhol’s work a different meaning or message. Specifically, its lawyer argued that Goldsmith’s photo is a photorealistic portrait of Prince while Warhol’s work is a depiction of the dehumanizing effects of celebrity. Based on this, according to the Foundation, Warhol’s Prince Series made fair use of Goldsmith’s photo. 

The Justices had some doubts. They wanted to know how a court should determine whether new work has a sufficiently distinct meaning or message to qualify for fair use. The Foundation responded that Courts could look at a range of things in determining the meaning and message of a given artwork including: (1) evidence from the creators; (2) expert testimony; and (3) the judges own impressions. Justice Alito, however, noted that it could be hard to figure out what “meaning or message” to pay attention to because people might see things not intended by the artist. 

The Foundation also faced questions about how to square its position with the fact that copyright law gives the right to create derivative works to the original artist — in this case, Goldsmith. (A derivative work is an adaptation of the original, for example, a translation of or a film made from a book.) In line with this, the Justices wanted to know whether a second artist performing another artist’s song in a way that conveys a different meaning is enough to avoid a claim of copyright infringement. The Foundation responded that it would require looking at other fair use factors. For example, whether the second work competed with the original. 

Here, Justice Sotomayor pointed out (rightly) that this pretty much destroyed the Foundation’s argument as the Prince Series definitely competed with Goldsmith’s photograph as an illustration for an article about Prince’s life. The Foundation tried to avoid this by arguing that Goldsmith’s photo and the Prince Series had different audiences (and, compared to Goldsmith’s photos, the Prince Series fetched, um, princely sums). 

Goldsmith’s attorney faced the Justices next. Among other things, she argued that a party claiming fair use should have to show that it needed to use the original work. In response, the Justices wanted to know the source for the test she was proposing. Goldsmith’s attorney responded that it came from the Supreme Court’s decision in Campbell. Justice Kagan was skeptical though. She noted that Campbell didn’t actually say that. Rather, it says that “if you need the original work, that’s the paradigmatic case.” Justice Kagan also noted that even if the second creator didn’t “need” the original work, there are plenty of situations where the new work is sufficiently transformative to be fair use. By way of example, Justice Kagan noted that Campbell uses “Warhol as an example of how somebody can take an original work and make it be something entirely different and that’s exactly what the fair use doctrine wants to protect.” 

Goldsmith’s attorney also noted movie, music, and publishing industry groups supported Goldsmith’s position and were “horrified” by the Warhol Foundation’s position because it would essentially eliminate the right to control derivative works as set forth in the Copyright Act. She pointed out that the Warhol Foundation’s position would allow someone to create a movie where Darth Vader is a hero, not a villain, and claim fair use. 

Finally, the Court heard from the United States government. It argued that the Court should not focus on a work’s meaning or message because it would destabilize long-established licensing markets, which have worked just fine in creating new and derivative works. It also argued that the Court should consider whether the second use has a distinct purpose or does it supersede the original, and, also, what is the justification for copying. 

According to the US, both of these factors point against a finding of fair use in this case because the Foundation has never tried to show that Warhol’s copying of Goldsmith’s photo was essential to accomplish a new or distinct purpose. Put another way, the government argues that you can’t use another artist’s work to directly compete with that artist’s work unless there’s a justification for the copying. 

Stay tuned. We should have a decision soon.