Photographers’ Rights: Warhol Case Tests the Limits of Transformative Use

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts v. Goldsmith. Attorney Thomas James explains what is at stake for photographers

In a previous post, I identified the Second Circuit’s decision in Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts v. Goldsmith as one of the three top copyright cases of 2021. It has since been appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Oral argument is scheduled for October 12, 2022.

The dispute

The underlying facts in the case, in a nutshell, are these:

Lynn Goldsmith took a photograph of Prince in her studio in 1981. Later, Andy Warhol created a series of silkscreen prints and pencil illustrations based on it. The Andy Warhol Foundation sought a declaratory judgment that the artist’s use of the photograph was “fair use.” Goldsmith counterclaimed for copyright infringement. The district court ruled in favor of Warhol and dismissed the photographer’s infringement claim.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the district court misapplied the four “fair use” factors and that the derivative works Warhol created do not qualify as fair use.

The United States Supreme Court granted the Warhol Foundation’s certiorari petition.

The issue

In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court is being called upon to provide guidance on the meaning and scope of “transformative use” as an element of fair use analysis. At what point does an unauthorized, altered copy of a copyrighted work stop being an infringing derivative work and become a “transformative” fair use?

The Conundrum

In the chapter on copyright in my book, E-Commerce Law, I predicted a case like this would be coming before the Supreme Court at some point. As I noted there, a tension exists between the Copyright Act’s grant of the exclusive right to authors (or their assignees and licensees) to make modified versions of their works (called “derivative works”), on one hand, and the idea that making modified versions of copyrighted works is transformative fair use, on the other. The notion that making changes to a work that “transform” it into a new work qualifies as fair use obviously threatens to swallow the rule that only the owner of the copyright in a work has the right to make new works based on the work.

Lower courts have not been consistent in their interpretations and approaches to the transformative use concept. The Warhol case presents a wonderful opportunity for the Supreme Court to provide some guidance.

Campell v. Acuff-Rose Music

The “transformative use” saga really begins with the 1994 case, Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 579 (1994). Unable to secure a license to include “samples” (copies of portions) of the Roy Orbison song, “Oh Pretty Woman” in a new version they recorded, 2 Live Crew proceeded to record and distribute their version with the unauthorized sampling anyway, invoking “fair use.”

In a decision that took many attorneys and legal scholars by surprise, the Supreme Court held that 2 Live Crew did not need permission to copy and distribute the work even though the work they created involved substantial copying of the Orbison song. To reach this conclusion, the Court propounded the notion that copying portions of another work — even substantial portions of it — may be permissible if the resulting work is “transformative.” This, the Court held, could hold true sometimes even if the newly created work is not a parody of the original.

In the years that followed, courts have struggled to determine what is a “transformative” modification of a work and what is a non-transformative modification of it. Some courts have demonstrated a willingness to apply the doctrine in such a way as to nearly nullify the exclusivity of an author’s right to make modified versions of his or her works.

Courts have also demonstrated a lack of consistency with respect to how they incorporate and apply “transformativeness” within the four-factor test for fair use set out in 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Why It Matters

This might seem like an arcane legal issue of little practical significance, but it really isn’t. People are already pushing the transformative use idea into new realms. For example, some tattoo artists have claimed in court filings that they do not need permission to make stencils from photographs because copying a photograph onto skin is a “transformative use.”

Of course, making and distributing exact copies of a photograph for sale in a stream of commerce that directly competes with the original photograph should not be susceptible to a transformative fair use claim. But how far can the claim be carried? If copying a photograph onto somebody’s skin is “transformative” use, would copying it onto somebody’s shirt also be “transformative”?

Clarity and guidance in this area are sorely needed. Hopefully the Supreme Court will take this opportunity to furnish it.

Contact Cokato copyright attorney Thomas James

Need help with registering a copyright or with a copyright problem? Contact attorney Thomas James.

The Internet Archive Lawsuit

Thomas James (“The Cokato Copyright Attorney”) explains how Hachette Book Group et al. v. Internet Archive, filed in the federal district court for the Southern District of New York on June 1, 2020, tests the limits of authors’ and publishers’ digital rights in their copyright-protected works.

The gravamen of the complaint is that Internet Archive (“IA”) allegedly scanned books and made them freely available to the public via an Internet website without the permission of copyright rights-holders. Book publishers filed this lawsuit alleging that IA’s activities infringe their exclusive rights of reproduction and distribution under the United States Copyright Act.

As of this writing, the case is at the summary judgment stage, with briefing currently scheduled to end in October, 2022. Whatever the outcome, an appeal seems very likely. Here is an overview to bring you up to speed on what the case is about.

The undisputed facts

Per the parties’ stipulation, the following facts are not disputed:

The case involves numerous published books which the publishers who filed this lawsuit (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and John Wiley &  Sons) have exclusive rights, under the United States Copyright Act, to reproduce and distribute.

Internet Archive and Open Library of Richmond are nonprofit organizations the IRS has classified as 501(c)(3) public charities. These organizations purchased print copies of certain books identified in the lawsuit.

The core allegations

The plaintiffs allege that IA obtains print books that are protected by copyright, scans them into a digital format, uploads them to its servers, and then distributes these digital copies to members of the public via a website – all without a license and without any payment to authors and publishers. Plaintiffs allege that IA has already scanned 1.3 million books and plans to scan millions more. The complaint describes this as “willful digital piracy on an industrial scale.”

Defenses?

First sale doctrine

One justification that is sometimes advanced for making digital copies of a work available for free online without paying the author or publisher is the so-called “first sale” doctrine. This is an exception to copyright infringement liability that essentially allows the owner of a lawfully acquired copy of a work to sell, transfer or lend it to other people without incurring copyright infringement liability. For example, a person who buys a print edition of a book may lend it to a friend or sell it at a garage sale without having to get the copyright owner’s permission. More to the point, a library may purchase a copy of a print version of a book and proceed to lend it to library patrons without fear of incurring infringement liability for doing so.

The doctrine does not apply to all kinds of works, but it does generally apply  to print books.

The first sale doctrine only provides an exception to infringement liability for the unauthorized distribution of a work, however. It does not provide an exception to liability for unauthorized reproduction of a work. (See 17 U.S.C. § 109.) Scanning books to make digital copies is an act of reproduction, not distribution. Accordingly, the first sale doctrine does not appear to be a good fit as a defense in this case.

“Controlled digital lending”

Public libraries lend physical copies of the books in their collections to library patrons for no charge.  Based on this practice, a white paper published by David R. Hansen and Kyle K. Courtney makes the case for treating the distribution of digitized copies of books by libraries as fair use, where the library maintains a one-to-one ratio between the number of physical copies of a book it has and the number of digital “check-outs” of the digital version it allows at any given time.

The theory, known as controlled digital lending (“CDL”), relies on an assumption that the distribution of a work electronically is the functional equivalent of distributing a physical copy of it, so long as the same limitations on the ability to “check out” the work from the library are imposed.

Publishers dispute this assumption. They take the position that there are important differences between e-books and print books. They maintain that these differences justify the distribution of e-books under a licensing program separate and distinct from their print book purchasing programs. They also question whether e-books are, in fact, distributed subject to the same limitations that apply to a print version of the book.

Fair use

Whether a particular kind of use of a copyright-protected work is “fair use” or not requires consideration of four factors: (1) the nature of the work; (2) the character and purpose of the use; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion copied; and (4) the effect of the use on the market for the work.

Supporters of free access to copyrighted works for all tend to focus on the “character and purpose” factor. They can be relied upon to argue that free access to literary works is a great benefit to the public. Authors and publishers tend to focus on the other factors. In this case, it seems possible that the factors relating to the amount copied and the effect of the use on the market for the work could weigh against a finding of fair use.  

The federal district court in this case is being called upon to evaluate those factors and decide whether they weigh in favor of treating CDL – or at least, CDL as IA has applied and implemented it – as fair use or not.

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The Cokato Copyright Attorney (Minnesota lawyer Thomas B. James) will be following this case closely. Subscribe for updates as the case makes its way through the courts.

Contact attorney Thomas James

Need help registering a copyright or trademark, or with a copyright or trademark problem? Contact Cokato, Minnesota attorney Tom James.

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