Graham v. Prince or Art v. Fair Use

Richard Prince is one of the most reviled names in the worlds of photography and copyright.  This is because his career and notoriety are built largely on high-profile “appropriation” art works, which have earned him considerably more income than most artists ever see, including, of course, most of the photographers whose images he has used without permission.  

In September of 2015, artists, copyright advocates, and the web-conscious reacted with strong emotions to New York’s Gagosian Gallery hosting an exhibit called “New Portraits,” comprising 38 pieces in which Prince used people’s Instagram photos without permission.  Each of the nearly 5’ x 6’ canvasses depicts a screen-grab of the photograph within the Instagram interface and with a few comments, including one made by Prince himself.   The headline about this exhibit that seemed to outrage most people was that Prince had appropriated these Instagram photos without permission and then sold them as fine are, reportedly earning $150,000 for at least one of the pieces.  

In response to that story, I wrote a post in May of 2015 arguing that what Prince had done, despite his utter disdain for copyright, was indeed art.  Specifically, I considered the fact that he had “artified” images which had essentially been thrown away—because posting on social media relinquishes individual authorship to an extent—to be the kind of provocative, contemporary statement that clearly follows a well-established tradition in modern art.  But just because the overall purpose of the multiple appropriations Prince made may be defensible as an “artistic statement,” this does not necessarily mean that each appropriation is itself a fair use under copyright law.  And one litigation stemming from this collection of “New Portraits” may prove this point.  

Graham v. Prince

One of the photos Prince used for this series is not the work of an amateur, and was not even uploaded by the photographer himself to Instagram.  Titled “Rastafarian Smoking a Joint” the photograph was captured in Jamaica in 1996 by professional photographer Donald Graham, who—and this is important—also sells his photographs in the fine art market.  In Prince’s “New Portraits” show, the Instagram reprint of Graham’s photo was presented as “Untitled” and was eventually purchased by the Gagosian Gallery itself.  

Graham filed suit for copyright infringement naming both Prince and Gagosian as defendants in December of 2015.  In addition to being used in “Untitled,” Graham alleges that his photo was displayed in marketing material, including a billboard used to promote the series, and that Prince made an infringing use when he posted the photo on Twitter in a defiant (okay, a fuck you) response to the lawsuit. 

Prince and Gagosian are of course making a fair use defense and even filed a motion to dismiss on that basis; but the court (S.D.N.Y.) denied the motion in July of 2017, primarily because fair use is a fact-based analysis which is not, in general, properly weighed at the motion to dismiss phase of a lawsuit.  Further, the court’s opinion in its denial of the motion suggests Graham would likely prevail in a fair use analysis and also reveals that the rationale being applied by the defendants asserts (once again) a very broad interpretation of that bugaboo doctrine of fair use known as “transformativeness.”

Akin to the manner in which certain tech companies have tried to argue that merely migrating an appropriated work into a new medium or context is inherently “transformative” (see post here), Prince is presenting a very similar argument in Graham.  His defense amounts to an assertion that, despite his having copied the entire “Rastafarian” photograph with only de minimis alterations, he has “transformed” the work by placing it in a new context—one which asks viewers to think about themes related to social media, but not related to anything specifically expressed in Graham’s original photograph.  This understanding of “transformativeness” does not typically hold up in a fair use defense, but Prince is not the only party to try to promote such an interpretation.

It is not normally sufficient to use a whole work without license as a supporting or central asset in an expression that is entirely separate from the meaning or expression embodied in the work being used.  In this regard, I would argue that Prince has used Graham’s photograph in much the same way a non-fiction author might include a protected photograph in her book.  Absent a license, the infringement of a photograph in this case would not be mitigated by the overall merits—including its value to to society—of the book itself.  Similarly, it should not matter what Prince was saying—or trying to say—with the “New Portraits” exhibit; the fact that Graham’s “unobstructed and unaltered photograph is the dominant image” in “Untitled” weighs substantially against finding “transformativeness” under the first factor.

In citing Prince v. Cariou, a case in which Prince prevailed on a fair use in defense for his use of all but five photographs belonging to Patrick Cariou, the court states, “In fact, the ‘alterations’ Prince made in this case are materially less significant than those that were found to be insufficiently transformative to clearly warrant a finding of fair use in Cariou.”  

Further, on the subject of art v. fair use, I would caution that what Prince has truly done to “transform” Graham’s photograph (and all the others he appropriated) is to put his name on it.  Remove Prince himself from the equation, and the perceived value—both artistic and monetary—of these Instagram canvasses drops quite possibly to zero.  Just ask Gagosian what they would pay if, for instance, I offered them the same images; and it is worth noting that the commercial nature of “Untitled,” which weighs against fair use, is substantially intertwined with Prince’s rather thin “transformative” argument, both of which turn on the assumption of some Midas-like quality to his celebrity.

Such metaphysics may be sufficient for the world of fine art (see Bansky shredding his painting the moment it sold for $1.4 million at Sotheby’s), and there is an extent to which the same metaphysics are present in the foundation of authorship in copyright law; but if it were indeed correct to say that the artist with the most marketable name may “transform” the work of another artist simply by moving it wholesale into the domain of his imprimatur, then the boundaries of copyright, and the fair use exception, would have no meaning whatsoever.   

In fact, it was Prince himself who emphasized the (often absurd) relationship between publicity and artistic value when he publicly revoked his authorship of the Instagram canvass he had made from a selfie of Ivanka Trump, and which she purchased for $36,000.  Displeased with Trump politics after the election, Prince supposedly returned the money to Ivanka and declared the work to be “no longer a Prince,” which begs all manner of legal and metaphysical questions as to whether an artist can truly disavow a work made from little more than a photograph he originally appropriated from the buyer of the work!  (And of course the most likely outcome will be an increase in the work’s monetary value because of the story.)

A Few Unusual Details

Graham v. Prince also entails a few nuances that do not often present themselves in copyright cases.  For one thing, “Rastafarian Smoking a Joint” was not registered at the Copyright Office at the time Graham filed suit, though it was registered by the time the billboard was made and certainly before Prince posted the photo in his allegedly infringing tweet.  Although it is a general rule of thumb that authors who do not register works have a hard time proceeding with litigation, this case illustrates that Graham may be able to prove actual damages (i.e. losses) and, more likely, that he may be awarded some portion of profits generated by both Prince and Gagosian based partly on the unlicensed exploitation of his work.  

Another aspect of this case that caught my eye was that if Graham prevails, part of his relief may include a court order to have the infringing works forfeited and/or destroyed.  This remedy dates back at least as far as the first copyright statute of queen Anne (1710), which provides for infringing copies of a book to be turned over to the proprietor, “who shall forthwith damask and make waste paper of them;” but it is not a remedy we see very often in the modern, let alone digital, world where infringers are usually enjoined from continuing some practice.  

But in the fine art world, where both Graham and Prince have market value that clearly intertwines name (i.e. brand) and creative expression, the very existence of “Untitled” and its use in promotional materials by Gagosian may be viewed as an appropriation that fails under the fourth factor of the fair use test, which assess potential market harm to the original work.  Prince has argued the opposite—that his use in fact elevates the market potential for Graham’s photograph, but I suspect a court will not find this persuasive if this case proceeds.  

Of course, if in fact Prince’s “Untitled” is destined to be destroyed, I suppose he and Graham could collaborate and ask Banksy to shred it, which will then make it worth a cool million at Sotheby’s.  At that point, the work will arguably be Banksy’s, which only further emphasizes my point that copyright law cannot be quite as ambiguous as the mercurial nature of what we call, or don’t call, “art.”

© 2018, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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