Emily Xiang is an IPilogue Writer, a Senior Fellow with the IP Innovation Clinic, and a 3L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
At last, the Supreme Court of the United States can have its say on the protectability of the subjects of ‘pop art’. In 1984, Vanity Fair magazine received a licence from photographer Lynn Goldsmith to use her 1981 portrait of Prince, which she had shot on assignment for Newsweek. Fast forward to 2017, when Vanity Fair published a special issue to pay homage to the recently deceased musician that featured ‘Orange Prince’ – Andy Warhol’s pop art depiction of Goldsmith’s photograph. The question of whether Warhol’s Prince silkscreens may be considered fair use has now made its way up to the US Supreme Court, and on October 12th of this year, oral arguments were heard from both sides. This is the second part of a two-part instalment outlining the arguments that were made in the matter of Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts v Goldsmith.
In determining fair use according to the statute, one of the primary points of contention involved the meaning behind the “purpose and character” of the alleged use. The Warhol Foundation contended that the purpose of ‘Orange Prince’ was to comment on modern society, thereby conveying unto the original an entirely different meaning and message. Lisa Blatt, representing Goldsmith, proposed that one may just as easily argue that the “purpose” of both uses was the commercial licensing of the works for publication. Blatt’s arguments were supported by Yaira Dubin, representing the Justice Department, who also highlighted the foundation’s commercial licensing of Warhol’s work, saying that “using another artist’s work as a starting point to turn around and compete directly with their original has never been considered fair.”
Of course, the magnitude of such a household name as Andy Warhol’s was not lost to the court. Justice Kagan questioned the influence such a name might have on the query: “Now we know who Andy Warhol was and what he was doing and what his works have been taken to mean. So it’s easy to say that there’s something importantly new in what he did with this image.” On the other hand, Justice Kagan also acknowledged that there must be a reason why Warhol’s art is hung up on the walls of museums: “[W]hy do museums show Andy Warhol? They show Andy Warhol because he was a transformative artist, because he took a bunch of photographs and he made them mean something completely different.”
The Supreme Court judges addressed a statement made by the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which ruled in favour of Goldsmith. The Court of Appeals had warned that judges “should not assume the role of art critic and seek to ascertain the intent behind or meaning of the works at issue.” Justice Alito, in particular, seemed to disagree with the statement, pondering the kind of perspective that would be appropriate in determining such distinctions: “Well, suppose that [somebody]…made an almost exact copy [of the Mona Lisa]…If you showed [the two works] to most people today, they would say, well, all right, brown dress, blue dress, red dress, doesn’t make any difference, right?…But, if you called somebody who knows something about Renaissance art, the person would say that makes a big difference.”
The commentary strikes at the ambiguity often found in determining cases involving intellectual property, if only because there is an inherently subjective element to construing creations of the mind. However, though patent law has the “person of ordinary skill in the art” standard and trademark law has the “ordinary casual consumer somewhat in a hurry” standard, copyright law often relies on a judge’s evaluation of whether infringement has occurred.
There is much to be anticipated from the Supreme Court’s final decision, the kind of effect such a decision might have on the world of art and photography, as well as whether a ruling in favour of the foundation would indeed “decimate the art of photography by destroying the incentive to create the art in the first place,” as Blatt argues.