WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the 2016 publication of an Andy Warhol image of the singer Prince violated a photographer’s copyright, a decision that dissenting justice said would stifle the creation of art.
The high court ruled 7-2 for photographer Lynn Goldsmith. “Lynn Goldsmith’s original works, like those of other photographers, are entitled to copyright protection, even against famous artists,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the opinion for the court.
In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan warned that the decision would “stifle creativity of every sort” and suggested the majority needed to “go back to school” for an Art History 101 refresher course.
The case involved images Warhol created of Prince as part of a 1984 commission for Vanity Fair. Warhol used one of Goldsmith’s photos as a starting point, a so-called artist reference, and Vanity Fair paid Goldsmith to license the photo. Warhol then created a series of images in his signature bright-colored and bold style.
Vanity Fair chose one of the resulting images — Prince with a purple face — to run in the magazine. Following Prince’s death in 2016, Vanity Fair ran a different image from the series on its cover — Prince with an orange face. It was that second use that the justices dealt with in the case.
Lawyers for Warhol’s foundation had argued that the artist had transformed the photograph and there was no violation of copyright law when the orange-faced Prince was reproduced in the magazine. But a majority of the justices said a lower court had correctly sided with Goldsmith in this instance.
Sotomayor said the court was expressing no opinion “as to the creation, display, or sale of any of the original” Warhol works and whether they’d be seen as copyright infringement. “The same copying may be fair when used for one purpose but not another,” she wrote.
In a dissent, Kagan asked, “If Warhol does not get credit for transformative copying, who will?” She was joined in her dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts.