Court in Richard Prince Case Affirms that “Transformative” Has Boundaries

The big battle over application of the fair use defense has been focused on the highly subjective, often confusing, doctrine of “transformativeness,” which is addressed under factor one of the four-factor test. Factor one considers the purpose of the use, including whether the purpose is commercial; and over the past decade or so, several high-profile defendants have sought to broaden the concept of a “transformative” purpose to encompass any use of a work that results in any new development, from fine art to technology.

The courts have largely rejected this over-broad approach because it would render fair use a boundaryless and, therefore, meaningless aspect of copyright law. And in an opinion delivered last week, we see why it is essential to draw contours around the “transformativeness” doctrine because the “purpose” inquiry so often controls the rest of the fair use analysis.

In a case that I frankly did not realize was still active, the S.D.N.Y. affirmed the significance of a meaningful “transformativeness” consideration when it denied the fair-use-based motion for summary judgment (MSJ) to famed appropriation artist Richard Prince and co-defendant Gagosian Gallery. At issue are photographs taken by Donald Graham and Eric McNatt, which Prince reproduced, displayed, and offered for sale as part of his “New Portraits” series in 2015. The story went viral when Prince created (and sold for six-figure prices) the series of canvasses made from enlarged screen grabs of Instagram posts. Because the main expression in each of the canvasses is someone else’s visual work, which Prince used without permission, photographers and other artists responded with mixed, but generally negative, feelings about the exhibit.

Although I discussed the idea that the “New Portrait” series itself was an artistic and engaging statement about social media, I also noted, regarding the Graham complaint, that finding creative significance in the exhibit itself does not mean that any of the works copied were fairly used. According to the opinion released last week, the years since the MSJ was filed have entailed a lengthy discovery process during which Prince apparently changed his “purpose” statement from a nondescript intent “to make art” to a more assertive claim that the “New Portraits” series is a comment about social media and its role in contemporary culture.

Inconsistency in testimony notwithstanding, the court found Prince’s elaborated statement of intended social message no more persuasive that his use was “transformative” than his originally stated intent to just “make art.” Citing substantial circuit precedent, the district court reiterated the opinion that the user of a protected work must in some way comment upon the work used, not merely use a work to make a statement about something else.

…where a secondary work does not obviously comment on or relate back to the original or use the original for a purpose other than that for which it was created, the bare assertion of a ‘higher or different artistic use’ … is insufficient to render a work transformative.[1] 

The court found that Prince’s latter testimony about the intent of the series only reinforced the fact that he could have selected any of the millions of images posted to Instagram and that he in no way commented upon or added new expression to the photographs made by Graham and McNatt. Combine the finding that the appropriator could have selected any work for his purpose with the fact that the works used happen to convey the heart of the follow-on expression, and then find the purpose to be commercial, and factor one is likely fatal to the defendant’s claim of fair use. In fact, this opinion, while not articulating anything new, is a good example of how the “transformative” question affects other dispositive aspects of the fair use inquiry.

As usual, the court addressed factor two (nature of the work used) as a simple, binary question finding the photographs in suit to be expressive in nature and, so, favors the plaintiffs with scant discussion on the matter. The factor three analysis (amount of the work used) restates that while it is possible to make fair use of a whole work, this inquiry is dependent upon factor one. “Because Prince’s use is not transformative, his use of nearly the entirety of plaintiffs’ photographs cannot be deemed ‘reasonable,’” the opinion states. [2] The court found that the fourth factor (potential market harm to the work used), “weighs slightly in favor of fair use” based on evidence indicating that Prince’s use does not threaten the market for the Graham and McNatt photographs, but…

…Prince has failed to show that other artists would not be emboldened by his success in declining to compensate plaintiffs for his non-transformative use, which negatively affects the value of the original works.

So, with three factors favoring the plaintiffs and the fourth maybe “partially” supporting the defendants, Prince and Gagosian lose on the MSJ. The consistency of this opinion with Second Circuit caselaw could mean that this litigation is about to settle. On the other hand, the Supreme Court has yet to drop its later-than-expected opinion in Andy Warhol Foundation v. Lynn Goldsmith—another Second Circuit case presenting a similar question on the meaning of “transformativeness.”

Warhol is more complicated than the “New Portraits” case for several reasons, including the fact that it highlights the tension between “transformative” for an unauthorized fair use, and “transformative” for an authorized derivative work. But AWF’s argument is similar to Richard Prince’s—namely that Warhol’s use is “transformative” because it expresses a “new meaning or message.” Thus, the Supreme Court may also find that this is too broad a definition for a prong of the inquiry that so often carries the day. As argued in an older post on Warhol, requiring that some comment on the work used must be present in the follow-on work would be consistent with the purpose of the fair use exception, and it would inject some long-needed clarity into a doctrine that has caused much confusion for all parties.

[1] Warhol v. Goldsmith citing Rodgers v. Koons (2nd Cir.)

[2] Citing Cariou v. Prince (2nd Cir).

David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

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