AWF v. Goldsmith: The Need for a Workable Standard of “Transformativeness”

The Supreme Court on October 12th heard oral arguments in Andy Warhol Foundation (AWF) v. Lynn Goldsmith, and presumably every copyright nerd (pro and con) was listening. In general, I would describe the Court as consistent—all justices focused on the narrow question presented with very little discussion outside those lines. The question, which badly needs an answer, is this:  What is “transformativeness” under factor one if the fair use test?

Petitioner AWF’s argument is that a use of a protected work to create a follow-on work that contains “new meaning or message” is sufficient to find that not only does factor one tilt toward fair use but that “new meaning and message” should be determinative of outcome in any fair use consideration The fact that AWF narrowly asks the Court to consider this one question—and insists that the art world depends on their standard—demonstrates how much weight factor one has accumulated in the years since the decision in Campbell (1992).

Whether the Court opines more expansively on fair use, I think it is safe to say that it will decide whether factor one requires a more rigorous standard—namely whether a follow-on work must contain at least a modicum of comment on the work being used.  While we wait, the copyright skeptics and critics—many who have filed briefs in this case—will say that the fair use doctrine itself, and even the speech right, are in peril unless the Court sides with the Warhol Foundation. But this is simply untrue.

AWF’s very broad interpretation of the first factor analysis is certainly what many copyright critics would like to see, but they are asking the Supreme Court to maintain confusion on the question presented—to give a nod of approval to an application of fair use circumscribed by little more than the imagination of the copier and their lawyers. But if the Court rejects this expansive view—if it clarifies the sprawling confusion as to what “transformative” means—fair use as an affirmative defense will remain a vibrant and appropriately balanced aspect of U.S. copyright law.

Comment is at the Core of Fair Use

As argued in the past, it is no coincidence that the preamble of the statute (Section 107) cites exemplary purposes for fair use that imply the presence of some discussion about the work being used. While understood not to be an exhaustive list, “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, [and] research” are named because the fair use doctrine evolved as judge-made law weighing cases entailing these types of uses. And because “purpose” is not defined beyond that illustrative list in the preamble, it is reasonable to hold that factor one of the four-factor test, which identifies the “purpose” of the use at issue in the very next sentence of the statute, should not become unmoored from the spirit of that preamble. 

Campbell does not stray from this principle. Some may disagree that parody exists in the follow-on work (2 Live Crew’s “Pretty Woman”), but as long as parody was the basis for the finding, the “comment on” requirement was met—albeit in context to a troublesome term of art called “transformativeness.” Since the popularization of that term in Judge Leval’s paper in 1990, courts and defendants have articulated factor one rationales so broad as to be undefinable. And AWF’s “new meaning and message” standard is precisely that—undefinable as a legal standard.

What is Meaning and Message?

In fact, a precedent case in the same lower court (the Second Circuit) illustrates some of the difficulties with the AWF arguments in this case. In Cariou v. Prince, follow-on artist, Richard Prince, rejected any notion of a “meaning” or “message” in the works he made using photographer Patrick Cariou’s images. What does a court do with AWF’s theory when the defendant himself will not define “meaning and message”? There, the Second Circuit held that some “new expression” was sufficient to find that factor one favored fair use—that comment on the original work is not required.

But tellingly, it was the Second Circuit’s own factor one language in the Cariou decision which provided the district court with a rationale for finding “transformativeness” in the Warhol screens, and which the Second Circuit then reversed stating:

“…the district court appears to have read Cariou as having announced such a rule…that any secondary work is necessarily transformative as a matter of law ‘[i]f looking at the works side-by-side, the secondary work has a different character, a new expression…”

Many legal practitioners have commented on the serpentine reasoning applied by the circuit court in order to square the Warhol and Cariou decisions—and all because “transformativeness” has become a doctrine without clear meaning.

Considering that a defendant artist might present any form of “message”—from baroque to minimalist to Richard Prince’s silence—and that it would be famously unwise for courts to apply a legal standard that turns on the judge or jury’s opinion of artistic merit, the Court should decline to engage in these semantic entanglements.  What is definable and identifiable is whether any comment on the original is present in the new work.  This would provide the factor one analysis with an articulated legal standard that judges and juries are able to apply in a principled way.

Necessity Implies Commentary

Several justices at oral arguments focused on the subject of “necessity,” asking whether it was essential that Warhol use Goldsmith’s photograph to make the “Prince Series” silkscreens. The rational answer to this question in this case is No. It was not necessary, in a legal sense, that Warhol use that particular photograph. Aside from the fact that a middleman (Vanity Fair) obtained the photograph from Goldsmith and provided it to Warhol, even if that were not the case, the necessity question is predicated on the commentary requirement.

Absent commentary on the work used, any alleged “need” for that exact work may be technical or functional but is not defensible as a matter of fair use. For instance, Goldsmith’s photo may be conducive to Warhol’s method because it’s a headshot in front of a plain background, but this kind of “need,” which facilitates the user’s process, is not a proper consideration for courts weighing fair use. Likewise, Richard Prince’s almost haphazard cut-outs of Cariou’s photos for some of his works are more suggestive of “opportunity” than “need,” and my guess is Richard Prince would confirm this assumption.

This view of necessity should focus attention on the question as to whether the expression in the original work has in some way been transformed through commentary upon that expression. By contrast, under AWF’s theory, nearly all uses of, for instance, underlying musical compositions would be fair uses merely by adding new lyrics to famous melodies. This is anathema to fair use doctrine in general and in conflict with Campbell in particular.

AWF’s Theory Did Not Exist in Warhol’s Time

Perhaps it is worth contemplating the legal landscape when Andy Warhol made the “Prince Series.” It was 1981, and most of Warhol’s career was behind him. The current Copyright Act—the first to codify fair use—had only been in effect for about three years, and the seminal application of Judge Leval’s “transformativeness” doctrine was still more than a decade in the future. It is understood that Warhol both appropriated and licensed photographs for his iconic works, though I doubt anyone could prove that he actively contemplated fair use—let alone considered the doctrine  as it has been applied or argued since Campbell.

At present, expansive applications of “transformativeness” have resulted in holdings that treat factor one as the dispositive consideration. Several empirical studies find that a defendant who wins on the “transformative” question is almost certain to prevail on the fair use defense overall,[1] and even where factor one is reasonably the most compelling, this only emphasizes the need for clarification as to the meaning of “transformativeness.”

Far too many decisions, especially in district courts, have placed fair use in direct conflict with the derivative works right, which is little surprise when the word “transformed” appears in Section 101 defining “derivative works.” Further, district courts (e.g., Brammer v. Violent Hues) have applied untenable interpretations of “transformative” in conflict with the most fundamental licensing models under the reproduction right, possibly resulting in needless time and expense on appeals for both parties.

Rather than holding that some evidence of “new expression” almost always carries the day, the other three fair use factors should be given proper consideration by mitigating the apparently mesmerizing effect of “transformativeness.” AWF and its amici’s assumption that its test would create more certainty in the art world is a plea for the status quo in which courts will continue to misapply factor one because “meaning and message” are often undefinable to the point of capriciousness. By rejecting AWF’s over-broad standard, the Court can clarify the vagueness which, since Campbell, has caused unnecessary confusion for rightsholders, users of works, and the courts.

[1] For instance, “Is Transformative Use Eating the World?” – Asay, Clark D. et al.

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