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US Supreme Court to hear arguments in copyright dispute with Andy Warhol

The court’s decision could have far-reaching implications for the artist community.

In lively arguments that touched on the meaning of art and referenced famous films, TV shows and paintings, US Supreme Court justices have grappled with a copyright dispute between a photographer and Andy Warhol’s estate over the paintings by the rock star Prince’s acclaimed artist .

The court on Wednesday heard about two hours of argument in a case that could help show the limitations of artistic work that relies on other material.

The Andy Warhol Foundation appealed a lower court’s decision that his 1984 paintings — based on a 1981 photograph of Prince taken by famed photographer Lynn Goldsmith for Newsweek magazine — were not protected by a copyright doctrine called Fair Use, which allows a specific unlicensed use of copyright. protected works.

A key factor that courts consider for fair use is whether the new work has a “transformative” purpose, such as B. Parody, education or criticism. Some judges expressed skepticism about the lower court’s decision that judges should not consider the importance of an artistic work in determining fair use.

“The purpose of all copyright laws is to encourage creativity,” argued Judge Elena Kagan.

“So why shouldn’t we ask,” Kagan said, if a work is truly creative and “something new and very different”?

Kagan noted that a 2021 Supreme Court ruling on fair use of software cited Warhol as “an example of how someone can take an original work and make something entirely different out of it, and that’s what the fair use doctrine seeks to protect.” .

Warhol, who died in 1987, was a central figure in the US pop art movement that emerged in the 1950s. Warhol often created silkscreens and other works inspired by photographs of consumer goods and celebrities, including Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.

He made 14 silkscreens and two pencil illustrations inspired by Goldsmith’s photograph.

Chief Justice John Roberts said Warhol’s work “sends a message about modern culture’s depersonalization and celebrity status.”

“It’s a different purpose” than in the photo, Roberts said. “One is a commentary on modern society; the other is to show what Prince looks like.”

The arguments related to various artistic creations, some adapted and some not. These included Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th-century painting “Mona Lisa” and even sporting goods from Syracuse University.

Some judges were concerned about the stakes for creators of material that inspires other works and suggested their final decision, due by the end of June, would take that into account.

The case could have far-reaching consequences for artists and the entertainment industry. The judges considered whether Warhol’s use of Goldsmith’s work was more like a film adaptation of a book, which normally requires a license.

“I think filmmakers might be surprised by the idea that what they’re doing can’t be fundamentally transformative,” Kagan said. “So why can’t we imagine that Hollywood could just take a book and make a movie out of it without paying for it?”

Judge Clarence Thomas noted that he was a Prince fan in the 1980s.

“No longer?” Judge Kagan interjected mischievously.

“Well, only on Thursday evening,” Thomas replied to laughter from the audience.

“But let’s just say I’m a Syracuse too [Orange] Fan and I decide to do one of those big blowup posters [Warhol’s] Orange Prince” and “put ‘Go Orange’ underneath. Would you sue me?” Thomas asked estate attorney Roman Martinez.

Goldsmith, 74, said she only found out about Warhol’s unlicensed work after Prince’s death in 2016. She sued Warhol’s estate for copyright infringement after it asked a Manhattan federal court to rule that his works did not infringe her rights. A judge found Warhol’s works protected by fair use, saying they transformed the “vulnerable” musician featured in Goldsmith’s work into an “iconic, larger-than-life figure”.

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