Warhol should have said: In the future, every artist will be sued for alleged copyright infringement

A few weeks ago, a Walled Culture blog post looked at the spate of lawsuits over alleged plagiarism in the world of music. Since the root of the problem here is copyright, which seeks to establish a monopoly over even the tiniest elements of creativity, it’s no surprise that exactly the same issue crops up in other artistic fields. For example, in the US there’s a long-running saga concerning the work of Andy Warhol. He may or may not have said: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”; but he certainly drew on pre-existing works for his own inspiration, with great success. The current case concerns Warhol’s images of the musician Prince, which are based on a photo taken by Lynn Goldsmith. Artnet explains the history behind the work:

Goldsmith initially shot the image of Prince while on assignment for Newsweek in 1981, but it was never published. In 1984, Vanity Fair licensed one of her portraits of the singer for an illustration by Warhol. The artist ultimately made an entire series based on the photo (which he did not license himself). Goldsmith only learned about the works in 2016, when Vanity Fair republished them after Prince’s death without crediting her.

Then the courts got involved. The Andy Warhol Foundation filed a pre-emptive suit in April 2017, asking the court to rule that the “Prince Series” did not violate the copyright of Goldsmith’s photo. A year later, a New York federal court ruled that there was no infringement, but in 2021 an appeals court reversed that judgment. The US Supreme Court has just announced that it will hear the case – an indication that it thinks important legal questions need to be decided here.

The Supreme Court is wrong: of course it’s fine that Warhol was inspired by someone else’s work – although it would be right to add an acknowledgement of the source of inspiration when the work is shown or discussed. The previous post about similar issues in the music world noted that all art builds on what has gone before. Trying to lay down rules about what is and what isn’t acceptable in terms of influence is a recipe for creative disaster. But despite claims to the contrary, copyright doesn’t really care about making it easier for artists: copyright is all about control – and money.

Featured image by Horzhenung Tadiae Sotaod.

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