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Andy Warhol wins in Prince photographer copyright fight
Andy WarholVia Wikimedia Commons

Andy Warhol wins in Prince photographer copyright fight

A judge has ruled the artist didn’t breach copyright when transforming a photograph of Prince into one of his iconic silkscreen paintings

Andy Warhol is one of the select few artists whose work is instantly recognisable – from screen-prints of Campbell’s soup cans to bright pop art portraits of cultural figures, Warhol consistently put his spin on everything he made. At least this is the view a judge has taken after a photographer claimed Warhol unlawfully used her photo of Prince in a 1984 painting.

Ending a lawsuit opened by photographer Lynn Goldsmith, a judge ruled that Warhol surpassed Goldsmith’s copyright by transforming an image of a “vulnerable, uncomfortable person” into “an iconic, larger-than-life figure”.

The photograph of Prince was taken in 1981, and was repurposed by Warhol for a 1984 issue of Vanity Fair (though Goldsmith only learned of its existence when the article appeared online in 2016). The publication paid $400 (£318) to license the never-before-published image before commissioning the legendary artist to create the now-contentious illustration. In his ruling, Judge John G. Koeltl noted that the article credited Goldsmith as owner of the ‘source photograph’.

Warhol went on to create a series of 16 artworks, now known as the Prince Series, featuring 12 silkscreen paintings, two screen prints on paper, and two drawings.

According to the Associated Press, Koeltl said Warhol’s works were in “stark contrast” to the original photograph, explaining: “Each Prince Series work is immediately recognisable as a ‘Warhol’ rather than as a photograph of Prince – in the same way that Warhol’s famous representations of Marilyn Monroe and Mao are recognisable as ‘Warhols’, not as realistic photographs of those persons.”

“Warhol is one of the most important artists of the 20th century,” the foundation’s lawyer, Luke Nikas, told artnet News, “and we’re pleased that the court recognised his invaluable contribution to the arts and upheld these works.”

Goldsmith is, understandably, less pleased, telling artnet News: “I know that some people think I started this, and I’m trying to make money. That’s ridiculous – the Warhol Foundation sued me first for my own copyrighted photograph.”

The legal battle between Goldsmith and the Andy Warhol Foundation started in April 2017, when the foundation preemptively sued the photographer, in order to “protect the works and legacy of Andy Warhol”. At the time, the foundation claimed Goldsmith was attempting to “shake down” the organisation, leading them to take action. Two days later, the photographer hit back with a countersuit.

The lawsuit once again raises the issue of ownership in the art world, reigniting the battle between photographers and artists who use their work as source material – asking where we draw the line between fair use and blatant stealing.

Despite the ruling, Goldsmith is adamant to make change in the industry, encouraging photographers to “stand up along with me to say that your work cannot just be taken from you without your permission”.