The question of copyright in cases of addition and transformation of one artist's work on the part another is a perpetually challenging question. Art, as we are frequently told, is subjective, and the extent to which changes must be made to an original work for it to be deemed an entirely new thing is again subjective. Certain cases make the matter clear, but in more subtle alterations, it falls to others to make the final determination as to whether something is in violation of a copyright, or is significantly different as to escape any such offense.
Andy Warhol is one such artist who can be pointed to as an exemplar of the notion of taking something and making it his own, as he did with images and objects well recognized over his long and well-documented career. And though he long ago shuffled off this mortal coil, his estate had to defend his work in court against claims the artist violated a photographer's copyright.
A District Court judge has ruled in favor of the Warhol estate in a lawsuit accusing the late artist of copyright infringement. The case against the Warhol estate came from photographer Lynn Goldsmith, who alleged that Warhol transgressed in using her photograph of Prince as the source for a work accompanying a Vanity Fair profile of the musician in 1984. In the work in question, Warhol used a black-and-white photograph of Prince from Goldsmith as the template for a colorful painting that was used with the article. In Billboard's reporting, Goldsmith alleges that a publication on Warhol's work including the Prince painting deprived her of a licensing opportunity for her original photograph.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl determined that the Warhol painting was sufficiently transformative, turning the uncomfortable and uneasy figure of the photograph into a "larger-than-life" figure. Additionally, the bright and bold colors of the painting make for a stark contrast with the original photo, thereby making the painting not a mere reproduction of the picture but a new and inventive work of its own. Billboard also notes that Goldsmith's attorney will be filing an appeal in hopes that a higher court might take a more restrictive view on fair use.
Presuming that the decision is upheld, the ruling would seem to further the cause of fair use for artists, a notion that finds itself on uncertain grounds in an age where technology allows many creators to clamp down on any and all works that they deem derivative, regardless of fair use and the merits of the individual cases.