The Andy Warhol Supreme Court Case and What It Means for Art

Written by: Varnika Mena

On May 18th, the Supreme Court 7-2 found that Andy Warhol violated photographer Lynn Goldsmith’s copyright when Warhol’s silk-screen painting of Lynn’s photograph of the musician Prince appeared in a 2016 issue of Vanity Fair. According to the Supreme Court, Goldsmith did in fact issue a limited license to Vanity Fair to use her work as an “artist reference for an illustration.” This license, however, was for one-time use only, and the 2016 publication violated that. 


The Andy Warhol Foundation argued that the artist was exercising his right under the fair use doctrine, or a law that allows limited use of copyrighted material as long as it meets certain specifications. In this case, two of those specifications have been subject to debate. The first relies on whether the copyrighted work has been adequately transformed or added on to. Warhol’s work, “Orange Prince,” is essentially the defining dark values of Goldsmith’s photograph over a bright orange background. 


“If the underlying art is recognizable in the new art, then you’ve got a problem,” said Columbia Law School professor of law, science, and technology Timothy Wu in an interview with NPR. However, a previous federal district court had ruled in favor of Andy Warhol. Clearly, the decision on whether this is a transformation or simply a modification of Goldsmith’s work is still up for debate.


The second specification in the fair use doctrine is what the purpose of the transformed artwork is. If Warhol’s painting were to be displayed in a museum or another non-profit situation, it would be favored by fair use. However, this was a for-profit, commercialized magazine cover, further justifying the ruling. 


Even still, the implications of the ruling are yet another factor to be examined.


“It’s a narrow opinion focused primarily on very famous artists and their use of other people’s work,” said Wu to NPR. “I don’t think it’s a broad-reaching opinion.” Warhol has been famous for living on the edge of copyright, as he depicts many popular brands, faces, and names. This case could be different as it takes him into account, as even posthumously his influence has made a mark on American art and culture. 


 “The Andy Warhol Case That Could Wreck American Art,” an article from the Atlantic, argues that this decision is destructive to the nature of the fair use doctrine, and restricts artist freedom.


“This is cultural death by a thousand cuts,” the article states. Since each Supreme Court Case ruling has implications on the entire field that is involved, the article expresses concerns about the constraining of the fair use doctrine. After all, it is the legal embodiment of the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants.” And with the use of new mediums of art such as AI-generated work, these waters get even muddier.