Supreme Court Rules Andy Warhol Violated Copyright of Prince Photo

By Stu Kelly / May 19, 2023

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of a prominent photographer in a significant copyright dispute over images she captured of Prince that were used as the source material for silkscreen prints created by the world-famous artist Andy Warhol. The debate was centered on whether artist Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints of Prince based on a photo taken by Lynn Goldsmith violated copyright law.

Specifically, the court ruled that Warhol’s images did not constitute “fair use” under copyright law, a decision that will considerably impact various creative industries. The ruling benefits people who own copyrighted content upon which other works are based, and it could negatively impact artists who make new works based on existing material. Justice Elena Kagan and Chief Justice John Roberts voted in dissent.

“This is a great day for photographers and other artists who make a living by licensing their art,” Goldsmith said in a statement.

The court concluded in a ruling authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor that the works by Warhol did not have a sufficiently different commercial purpose from that of the original photo Goldsmith took: Both are used to illustrate magazine articles about Prince. Whether or not a body of work is used for a commercial purpose is just one of the many factors used to analyze copyright infringement.

Sotomayor explained that the images “share substantially the same purpose, and the use is commercial.” The Andy Warhol Foundation had “offered no other persuasive justification for its unauthorized use of the photograph,” she added. Sotomayor said the ruling was narrow, noting that even other works by Warhol, including his famous images of Campbell’s soup cans, would be analyzed differently. While the Prince images were used to illustrate a magazine story, which is the same purpose for which Goldsmith’s photos would be used,  the soup cans series “uses Campbell’s copyrighted work for an artistic commentary on consumerism,” Sotomayor wrote.

Warhol created 16 silkscreens and sketches known as the “Prince Series,” and Vanity Fair ran one of the images, Purple Prince, in its November 1984 issue. After Warhol died in 1987, his foundation took ownership of the Prince Series and, according to court filings, sold 12 of the 16 originals. The Andy Warhol Museum has the other four. 

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Stu Kelly