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 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.
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?
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.