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.
Yes, there is a Right of Publicity interest pertaining to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died a week ago at the age of 87. As always, application and analysis of her Right of Publicity would depend on context and specifics in any particular situation. But sticking to overview observations, since she was a lawyer, it may be a safe assumption that Justice Ginsburg had a testamentary plan in place. Since she was attuned to intellectual property matters, it is possible there were specific Right of Publicity provisions in her testamentary plan. Since she is commonly referred to as RBG, it is safe to assume RGB could unequivocally identify Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And given the preceding points, it is safe to assume potential commercial uses or trademark activity could intersect with some of these points. This may all be academic, of course. We’ll see.
Earlier this week, the NCAA’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the case of Keller v. Electronic Arts Inc., 724 F.3d 1268 (9th Cir. 2013) was denied. The author of http://www.RightofPublicity.com joined SAG in filing an amicus brief in that case at the lower court level, and the Ninth Circuit’s ruling and analysis were correct under the circumstances.
Electronic Arts, for its part, had already settled the case. The NCAA petitioned the Supreme Court to adopt the Rogers Test to determine use of the Right of Publicity of student athletes in video games and to overturn the determination that the use of the athletes in the video game was not protected by the First Amendment.
The Rogers Test was devised as an analysis for titles and would have been entirely wrong for the Keller case. It is surprising the Rogers test was even suggested, except perhaps it was believed that if adopted the result would be something the NCAA preferred.
The Ninth Circuit’s application of the Transformative Use test was the correct test for the use and issues in question. We don’t need the U.S. Supreme Court to assist in determining that a test devised for titles should not be used in a case like Keller.