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When does art transform rather than copy? U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on Warhol painting of Prince

U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday will hear arguments in a copyright dispute between Andy Warhol's estate and photographer Lynn Goldsmith over his paintings of Prince, based on a photograph she took.

Lower courts have been split on whether Warhol estate breached copyright of Lynn Goldsmith photo

Andy Warhol died in 1987, but his estate continues to sell reproductions of his silk screen prints. Photographer Lynn Goldsmith countersued the Andy Warhol Foundation for copyright infringement in 2017 after it asked a Manhattan federal court to rule that his works did not violate her rights. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to ponder in a case centring on work by Andy Warhol a question as philosophical as it is legal: when a work is inspired by other material, what is the line between art and copyright theft?

On Wednesday, the justices will hear arguments in a copyright dispute between Warhol's estate and celebrity photographer Lynn Goldsmith over his paintings based on a 1981 photograph she took of rock star Prince.

The case dealing with when an artist makes "fair use" of another's work under copyright law has led to split decisions on its way to the top court. The dispute over the legal boundary between inspiration and misuse has also drawn broad interest for its implications for artists.

Warhol, who died in 1987, was a central figure in the pop art movement that emerged in the 1950s, known for his whimsical style and bold use of colours. He often created silkscreen print paintings and other works inspired by photos of famous subjects, including actors Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, Queen Elizabeth II, Chinese leader Mao Zedong and music icon Debbie Harry, among others.

Goldsmith photographed Prince for Newsweek magazine in 1981. Warhol made 14 silkscreen prints and two pencil illustrations based on one of Goldsmith's Prince photos.

Goldsmith, 74, has said she learned of Warhol's works only after Prince's 2016 death. Goldsmith countersued the Andy Warhol Foundation for copyright infringement in 2017 after it asked a Manhattan federal court to rule that his works did not violate her rights. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the estate's appeal of a lower court's decision favouring Goldsmith.

The limits of fair use

Copyright law sometimes allows for the fair use of copyrighted works without the creator's permission. A key factor courts consider in determining fair use is whether it has a "transformative" purpose, such as parody, education or criticism.

The Supreme Court has not ruled on fair use in art since 1994, when it found that rap group 2 Live Crew's parody of singer Roy Orbison's Oh, Pretty Woman made fair use of the 1960s song.

The high court's take on the case is "very hard to predict," said Harvard Law School professor Rebecca Tushnet, who wrote a brief supporting Warhol with other copyright scholars.

Megan Noh, who heads the art law practice at the firm Pryor Cashman, said she hopes the Supreme Court will clarify how courts determine when a work is transformative and how much weight this should receive compared to other considerations.

Both sides have backers

A federal judge found Warhol's works were protected by the fair use doctrine, having transformed the "vulnerable" Prince depicted in Goldsmith's work into an "iconic, larger-than-life figure."

In reversing that ruling last year, the Manhattan-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said judges should not "assume the role of art critic and seek to ascertain the intent behind or meaning of the works," but instead should decide whether the new work has a "fundamentally different and new artistic purpose and character" that "stands apart from the 'raw material' used to create it."

Lynn Goldsmith, seen in 2013 at a New York City event, is supported by the Justice Department in her court battle. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

The 2nd Circuit decided Warhol's paintings were "much closer to presenting the same work in a different form," more similar to a "derivative" work, like an art reproduction, than a transformative one.

The Supreme Court's eventual decision could have broad or narrow implications for fair use depending on the ruling, Tushnet said, which is not expected for several weeks.

The Warhol estate told the Supreme Court the 2nd Circuit's decision "casts a cloud of legal uncertainty over an entire genre of visual art, including canonical works by Andy Warhol and countless other artists."

The estates of famed pop artists Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, joined by the Brooklyn Museum, backed the foundation, telling the justices in a brief that the 2nd Circuit decision would "impose a deep chill on artistic progress, as creative appropriation of existing images has been a staple of artistic development for centuries."

Fan fiction writers, documentary filmmakers and intellectual property professors also have supported the foundation.

Goldsmith's lawyers told the Supreme Court that a ruling favouring the foundation would "transform copyright law into all copying, no right."

President Joe Biden's administration has backed Goldsmith, as have trade groups for the recording industry, actors and publishers.

In its amicus brief to the court in August, the Justice Department said that reversing the appeal court ruling "would dramatically expand the scope of fair use."

With files from CBC News

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