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  • Kaylynn Kattiyaman

Andy Warhol Foundation v Goldsmith: A Brief Summary and its Implications on Copyright Law

By: Kaylynn Kattiyaman

The purpose of copyright law is to expand and develop the creative arts and sciences by ensuring protective measures for artists and inventors in their creative endeavors. Under section 106 of the U.S. Copyright Act, valid copyright owners have exclusive rights over their works, which includes rights to reproduce, copy, distribute, display, perform, and create derivative works. Copyright infringement will not be found, however, if the copying qualifies as fair use under 17 U.S.C. section 107 of the Copyright Act.

On May 18, 2023, the Supreme Court heard a copyright infringement case which centered on the transformative nature of the use of a photograph of the late singer, Prince, in an artistic work. In a 7-2 decision, the Court ruled that Andy Warhol infringed on photographer Lynn Goldsmith’s copyright when he developed the Prince Series, which includes a series of silk screen images based on Goldsmith’s 1981 photograph of the late musician Prince.

Goldsmith’s photograph had been previously licensed to Vanity Fair and was used by Andy Warhol as a commission reference for Vanity Fair’s magazine. Goldsmith was compensated $400 and stipulated that the photograph reference was for single use only. However, Warhol created sixteen variants of Goldsmith’s photograph called the Prince Collection for his private collection before passing away in 1987. The Andy Warhol Foundation (“AWF”) managed Warhol’s unreleased works and exhibited the Prince Collection in several museum shows and galleries.

After Prince’s passing in 2016, Conde Nast obtained a license from AWF to include the Prince Series on the cover of a commemorative magazine highlighting Prince’s life. Goldsmith was unaware of the illustration until she saw the Conde Nast cover. Goldsmith received neither a fee nor a source credit. When she notified AWF of her belief that it infringed her copyright, AWF sued Goldsmith for a declaratory judgment of noninfringement or fair use.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the court, holding that, “the use of a copyrighted work may nevertheless be fair if, among other things, the use has a purpose and character that is sufficiently distinct from the original.” She stated that, “Goldsmith's original photograph of Prince, and AWF's copying use of that photograph in an image licensed to a special edition magazine devoted to Prince, share substantially the same purpose, and the use is of a commercial nature.”

There is a mix of feelings regarding the outcome of the ruling and how it will affect the future of copyright law, art, and creativity. On one hand, as Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent highlights, this outcome will “stifle creativity of every sort” and “impede new art and music and literature” by overcomplicating an already trick balancing act. On the other hand, this ruling signifies a huge victory for copyright protections and highlights the importance of preserving original ideas and protecting one’s work from infringers.

The notions of copyright law have always been incredibly complex, especially when implementing fair use in the equation. With the outcome of this ruling, many questions still lie ahead. Does this potentially open the floodgates to an abundance of copyright infringement lawsuits against many artists or should this ruling be interpreted under a narrow set of circumstances? Further, should we leave our creative interpretations and endeavors in the hands of the courts?


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