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Andy Warhol in New York. The US Supreme Court has agreed to review a copyright dispute involving works of art by Warhol and a photographer who took an image of the musician Prince that the works are based on. Photo: AP

Row over Andy Warhol’s Prince paintings goes to US Supreme Court: photographer sues over copyright

  • Warhol’s 1984 paintings of the musician were based on a 1981 photo taken by Lynn Goldsmith for Newsweek magazine
  • Goldsmith is suing for copyright infringement over the fair use doctrine, and the case has been taken up by the Supreme Court

In a case that could help clarify when and how artists can make use of the work of others, the US Supreme Court has agreed to decide a copyright dispute between a photographer and Andy Warhol’s estate over Warhol’s 1984 paintings of rock star Prince.

The justices took up the Andy Warhol Foundation’s appeal of a lower-court ruling that his paintings – based on a photo of Prince that photographer Lynn Goldsmith had shot for Newsweek magazine in 1981 – were not protected by the copyright law doctrine called fair use. This doctrine permits unlicensed use of copyright-protected works under certain circumstances.

Goldsmith, 74, countersued Warhol’s estate for infringement in 2017 over the unlicensed paintings of Prince after the estate asked a Manhattan federal court to find that his works did not violate her rights. Warhol, who died in 1987, often based his art on photographs.

Goldsmith, who has said she did not learn about the unlicensed works until after Prince died in 2016, asked the court to block Warhol’s estate from making further use of her work and for an unspecified amount of damages.

Andy Warhol’s Prince illustration based on the Lynn Goldsmith photograph as it appeared in Vanity Fair, as reproduced in court documents.

A judge ruled that Warhol’s works were protected against Goldsmith’s infringement claims by the fair use doctrine, finding they transformed Goldsmith’s portrayal of Prince as a “vulnerable human being” by depicting him as an “iconic, larger-than-life figure”.

After Goldsmith challenged that decision, the New York-based Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit last year found that Warhol’s paintings had not made fair use of the photo, allowing Goldsmith’s case to proceed.

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The court decided that a transformative work must have a “fundamentally different and new artistic purpose and character”, and that Warhol’s paintings were “much closer to presenting the same work in a different form”.

The Andy Warhol Foundation asked the Supreme Court in December to overturn the decision, arguing that it created “a cloud of legal uncertainty” for an entire genre of art like Warhol’s.

Warhol Foundation lawyer Roman Martinez said he welcomed the high court’s decision to hear the case and hopes it will “recognise that Andy Warhol’s transformative works of art are fully protected by law”.

Andy Warhol’s Prince Series, as reproduced in court documents.

Goldsmith said in a statement provided by one of her lawyers that she looks forward to continuing her legal fight at the Supreme Court.