Emily Xiang is an IPilogue Writer, a Senior Fellow with the IP Innovation Clinic, and a 3L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Over 3 years have passed since New York’s District Court reversed a ruling in the matter of Andy Warhol’s “Orange Prince”, and the ripples of the case have finally made their way up to the Supreme Court. On Wednesday, October 12th, 2022, the judges of the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments from both sides, and considered whether Warhol’s infamous 16 Prince silkscreens, which he had based on a 1981 photograph of Prince by photographer Lynn Goldsmith, may be considered a use that is “fair”.
The doctrine of fair dealing in Canada has long played an important role in balancing the scales of copyright law from leaning too far in favour of copyright holders. The fair dealing exceptions recognize certain uses of protected works as benefitting society, and thereby safeguard those uses from findings of infringement. The parallel doctrine in the US tracks along similar reasoning and is known as the ‘fair use’ doctrine. In determining whether a use of a copyrighted work is “fair,” courts consider numerous factors, including whether the use in question is “transformative” of the original material.
In this case, the Supreme Court was invited to assess whether a work was “transformative” when it conveys a different meaning or message from its source material, or whether, in cases where the accused work “recognizably derives” from its source material, judges are forbidden from deriving or considering such meanings. It was an engaging proceeding with an abundance of references to pop culture icons and current affairs, and was punctuated at times by laughter in the courtroom at an amusing hypothetical posited by one of the judges.
Roman Martinez appeared on behalf of the Andy Warhol Foundation, and clarified the issue at hand, as well as the Foundation’s position: “[b]oth courts below agreed, and Goldsmith doesn’t dispute, that Warhol’s Prince Series can reasonably be perceived to convey a fundamentally different meaning or message from Goldsmith’s photograph. The question in this case is whether that different meaning or message should play a role, any role, in the fair use analysis. Our answer is yes.” Martinez argued that while Goldsmith’s original photograph captured a “vulnerable-looking Prince,” Warhol’s depiction turned it into a commentary on celebrity and fame – an entirely different meaning and message.
The judges somewhat pushed back against this argument. Justice Elena Kagan suggested that in Hollywood, while a movie adaptation of a book might introduce plenty of new elements that may make a derivative work “transformative” under Martinez’s proposed test (“…new dialogue, sometimes new plot points, new settings, new characters, new themes”), one would still expect some sort of licensing agreement to be required.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas also commented on Martinez’s arguments, albeit in more lighthearted terms. The Chief Justice wondered whether a claimant who depicted Prince with “a little smile on his face” may advance the argument that the “meaning or message” of the work was fundamentally changed to convey that “Prince can be happy” or that “Prince should be happy.” Justice Thomas in turn asked Martinez to imagine the Justice at a Syracuse football game as a Prince fan, “which [he] was in the ‘80s.” Justice Kagan interjected, “No longer?,” to which Justice Thomas replied, “Well…so only on Thursday night.” This elicited some laughter in the courtroom. Justice Thomas continued, “And I decide to make one of those big blowup posters of ‘Orange Prince’ and change the colours a little bit around the edges and put ‘Go Orange’ underneath. Would you sue me for infringement?,” insinuating that the changes and add-ons may be considered to convey a new “message” to Warhol’s work, under the Foundation’s proposed test. In response, Martinez emphasized that the verdict in both scenarios would largely depend on the degree of transformation in meaning or message, as well as the other factors in the ‘fair use’ analysis, such that a holistic assessment may be applied.