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Supreme Court to mull line between art and theft in Warhol case

Posted On: Oct. 11, 2022 10:41 AM CST

Andy Warhol

(Reuters) — The U.S. Supreme Court is set to ponder in a case centering on paintings by the late artist Andy Warhol a question as philosophical as it is legal: What is the line between art and copyright theft when artwork is inspired by other material?

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

The case centers on how courts decide when an artist makes “fair use” of another's work under copyright law. The dispute over the legal boundary between inspiration and misuse has drawn broad interest for its implications for artists.

Mr. 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 colors. He often created silkscreen print paintings and other works inspired by photos of famous subjects including actresses Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, Britain's Queen Elizabeth, Chinese leader Mao Zedong, boxer Muhammad Ali, rocker Debbie Harry and commercial products including Campbell Soup cans.

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

Ms. Goldsmith has said she learned of Mr. Warhol's works only after Prince's 2016 death. Ms. 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 favoring Ms. Goldsmith.

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. But the court's current 6-3 conservative majority has shown little reluctance in overturning precedents.