US Supreme Court to consider Andy Warhol’s Prince Series in relation to copyright fair use and transformative test
You can find information concerning the dispute between the Andy Warhol Foundation (AWF) and photographer Lynn Goldsmith elsewhere, such as the factual underpinnings, lower court rulings on the case to date, and the arguments on either side easily enough in other place. Given the recent acceptance of a writ of certiorari by the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS), I will simply note a few details that could be interesting to watch from a Right of Publicity perspective.
First, it is interesting to consider that in Comedy III, the court specifically cited Warhol’s Marilyn as the example of a transformative work, in crafting and applying its transformative use test to the Right of Publicity. Often lost in discussion of the case and reference thereto, the rightsowners of the Three Stooges (Comedy III) won the case on Right of Publicity grounds in relation to the commercial activities that had occurred in relation to a charcoal sketch of the Three Stooges by the defendant. The original work of art itself was not really the issue, but rather, the activities connected to that work were found to constitute a Right of Publicity violation. The Judge carefully articulated a test for deciding such situations, thus advancing the transformative use test for Right of Publicity purposes.
In the Warhol dispute concerning Lynn Goldsmith’s Prince photograph, the issue is of a copyright nature. Still, it is interesting that in a notable prior case (Comedy III), Warhol’s Marilyn was cited as the example of a transformative use. Now, in the AWF / Goldsmith matter the very question of whether Warhol’s rendering of Prince is transformative takes center stage.
Second, in teaching Comedy III this semester after news of SCOTUS accepting AWF’s petition, a question was raised whether Warhol perhaps used a reference photo in creating his Marilyn work. The inquiry is intriguing, though perhaps only for academic reasons. Without knowing the specifics, it seems plausible that if Warhol used a reference work for creation of his Prince work, it is possible he did the same for creation of his Marilyn work. The implications, if so, can be considered elsewhere.
Third, it is important to note that the AWF Goldsmith matter to be decided by SCOTUS, with a decision expected sometime in 2023, ought to be confined to a copyright decision. Any Right of Publicity involved would be that of Prince, and it is assumed that the rightsowners of Prince’s publicity rights are not part of the matter. SCOTUS is good at keeping the issues it is considering confined to only that which is in front of the Court at that time. In other words, no matter what SCOTUS decides in the AWF Goldsmith matter, it is expected to be a copyright decision only.
Last, and despite the observation in the preceding paragraph, certain Right of Publicity tests and analytical constructs often borrow from the copyright realm. If the transformative use test happens to be recast or adjusted by SCOTUS, it would not be surprising to see future holdings considering the Right of Publicity in relation to a Comedy III-type transformative use test take into account what the Supreme Court finds in the Warhol Goldsmith matter concerning Warhol’s Prince series.
An image that can be found in an image provider’s database marked “public domain” does not make it so. Obviously, the recent B.J. Novak odyssey illustrates how far things can go sometimes, but that does not mean his image actually was public domain, that ad agencies and companies were free to use his image on products or in advertising, or that he was without recourse (though he has indicated not being inclined to pursue the end-users). The term “public domain” (like many aspects of intellectual property) gets misused often. The headline of a recent article “How your photo could end up in the public domain – and used in ads around the world” takes a substantial leap and demonstrates the point, though the substance of the article may be helpful.
Just a quick note based on the Second Circuit’s recent ruling in Andy Warhol Found. for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith, where it determined that Warhol’s Prince series was not transformative and therefore was subject to copyright provisions in relation to the reference photograph Warhol used. The court went through a fair use analysis, and the case was primarily concerning copyright, but it is interesting to contrast this decision with the Comedy III case, which was primarily Right of Publicity-related. In Comedy III, the Three Stooges artwork was held to not be sufficiently transformative, and the court used Warhol’s Blue Marilyn as the example of a work that would, in contrast, and in the court’s estimation, be sufficiently transformative. I’ll let those motivated to seek more run their own searches rather than post links here, as there is no lack of content, analysis and discussion being offered on this recent ruling. I have not, as yet, seen reference to the contrast with the Comedy III case, so I thought it may be useful to note it here.
Departing from the usual Halloween release date, Forbes issued its annual top-earning deceased celebrities list on Friday, November 13th in 2020. A few takeaways, in no particular order:
1. Unsurprisingly, given the worldwide pandemic, almost all the reported numbers are down. Some may have more immunity than others, and those that went up, like Dr. Seuss were bolstered by television, movie and media deals. Some of that may be one-time bursts.
2. Elvis Presley was closing in on a 50% decline. Graceland, as a tourist destination, no doubt accounts for much of that given closures in 2020.
3. Prince is down yet again another year further from his death, as has been the trend. The summary on Prince mentions only music sales.
4. Those with the misfortune of making 2019’s list due to early departure, XXXTentacion and Nipsey Hussle, are gone.
5. Those with the misfortune of making 2020’s list due to early departure include Kobe Bryant and Juice WRLD. It will be interesting to see if Kobe Bryant is a one-time, one-year entrant or will make next year’s list as well.
6. Not-much-of-a-prediction: Eddie Van Halen will be on next 2021’s list. Though he passed away over a month prior to the release of the 2020 list, that is neither enough time to account increased sales, nor enough time to process his passing into a list that was no doubt already well underway in October.
7. The article includes a statement about its methodology, which includes sources I use when appropriate in valuations.
Last, a word about the often used term “delebrity” in relation to deceased celebrities. I get it, though it’s never really hit me as particularly clever or useful as a term. More importantly, no one I know who actually works with the heirs, family, and estates of notable deceased icons uses this term. It’s hard to take someone seriously who uses this term in their scholarship, publications, or writings. But keep using it, those who do, because it provides a revealing tell.
Here is a link to Forbes’ 2020 list: https://www.forbes.com/sites/maddieberg/2020/11/13/the-highest-paid-dead-celebrities-of-2020/?sh=37a974e03b4b&utm_source=Licensing+International+Database&utm_campaign=b3b89e5adb-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_12_18_01_57_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_ec0e484a60-b3b89e5adb-397655773&mc_cid=b3b89e5adb&mc_eid=a31363c945
I’ve seen some commentary on Mel Gibson’s issuance of a letter to the person behind a Chilean honey branded “Miel Gibson.” Here’s a link to more coverage of the story: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-15/mel-gibson-threatens-to-sue-chilean-honey-maker-over-image-use/12562438
To date, the developments consist of a letter being issued. No lawsuit has been filed. The letter seems to indicate a willingness for the Chilean business person to continue to some extent, but requests his image be removed. Reportedly, after the recipient shared the letter online, her social media grew “exponentially.”
There’s no question that the product name and packaging ties to Mel Gibson. For those who don’t like the contents of or even issuance of the letter, I would ask “what would you advise be done?”
The lawsuit filed by Jason Mraz against MillerCoors, filed December 4, 2019 illustrates various important points and takeaways. View the complaint here: Jason Mraz v. MillerCoors complaint
Reportedly, MillerCoors was a sponsor of the 2019 BeachLife Festival in California where Jason Mraz performed. His performance of course included one of his hit songs, I’m Yours. The complaint alleges that MillerCoors posted an advertisement on Instagram for Coors. The advertisement includes a clip of Mraz performing the song, the Coors logo, display of a can of Coors Light, the phrase “presented by Coors Light,” and in the comments, the added statement “Kicking off summer with the World’s Most Refreshing Beer at the BeachLife Festival.”
While a complaint is not the same as a ruling, at least two of the important takeaways from this case are:
- Social media is advertising.
- Sponsors do not acquire broad rights to third-party intellectual property simply by serving as a sponsor.
Both of these issues come up with some regularity in the business of representing a rights owner and the right of publicity. Claiming that a social media post is somehow different from advertising on the basis that it is a fluid, user-controlled environment, or that serving as a sponsor entitles the sponsor to utilize the rights of anyone other than the party they are in contract with as a sponsor, both can lead to serious problems.
Not that it would happen, but I can imagine providing the scenario in the following link as a law school exam: Larry Bird mural
It does not appear headed towards legal action, but hypothetically, how could this go? On the copyright front, is it a fair use? A derivative work? Does adding tattoos that Bird obviously does not have change the copyright analysis?
On the Right of Publicity front, or perhaps on the privacy front, what issues exist? Is it a commercial use? Is it protected by statute? Are there issues involved here that sway the analysis in one direction or the other?
Actress Tara Reid apparently has filed a lawsuit seeking $100 million relating to merchandising of the Sharknado film franchise. Reportedly at issue are product categories such as branded beer and slot machines with her likeness on them, which according to her contract require her separate approval. From a distance, this looks like a contract dispute more than a Right of Publicity case, though certainly the Right of Publicity is implicated by the issues at hand. If her likeness is on the product, one hopes that the transformative test would not be twisted and stretched to attempt an argument that the image on the product is meant to be the character from the film, not the actress herself, that her likeness is transformed. But it wouldn’t be the first time a carefully tailored test gets twisted down the line.
Here is Forbes coverage of the lawsuit: https://www.forbes.com/sites/legalentertainment/2018/12/07/tara-reid-sues-sharknado-producers-for-100m/#26b5b9672c46
Beyonce suit against Feyonce knockoffs illustrates need for Right of Publicity distinct from trademark
A Judge recently denied Beyoncé’s request for injunctive relief against a Texas company selling a range of products using “Feyonce.”
Apparently, the Feyonce pun is based on the proximity to the word fiancé. The Judge’s ruling, in summary, is that there was not a sufficient showing of potential confusion among customers that Feyonce was infringing Beyoncé’s trademark rights.
Thus, the need for Right of Publicity as a distinct form of intellectual property, that trademark does not adequately address, is illustrated yet again.
Here’s a link to more information on the ruling and the case: Beyonce Feyonce Lawsuit
Interesting Bloomberg article dated 2/1/17 covering the dispute over the valuation of Michael Jackson’s estate. “The IRS claims Jackson’s should have been valued at $434 million. The estate claims that it was worth a mere $2,105.” Sounds like a case for a Right of Publicity valuation expert. Here’s a link to the Bloomberg article: Bloomberg: Michael Jackson estate valuation
The Right of Publicity was part of 60 Minutes’ season premier episode on Sunday, September 27, 2009, in a segment captioned “A Living For The Dead” which, in updated segments, included reference to Luminary Group and the celebrity clients it represents. I’ve been contacted concerning inaccuracies that the story conveyed. Mostly missing from the story was the idea that representing deceased personalities, in conjunction with the heirs of those personalities, involves an effort to protect and further the legacy of that person, and in many cases the causes which were important to him or her. It isn’t just about money, as the angle of the story seemed to emphasize. There were a few missed opportunities to enlighten the public of the importance of the right of publicity and the work that at least some put into representing departed legends. Here is a link to the CBS story: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=5345034n