New Guidance on “Transformative” Use in AWF v. Goldsmith

In this Court, the sole question presented is whether the first fair use factor, “the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit edu­cational purposes,” §107(1), weighs in favor of AWF’s recent commercial licensing to Condé Nast.

Although the consideration in Andy Warhol Foundation v. Lynn Goldsmith is narrowly focused, the outcome in this case has anything but narrow implications. Almost thirty years after the decision in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose let the “transformative” blob ooze into the judiciary, the Supreme Court has now stuffed a substantial portion of the blob back in the bucket.

In a 7-2 opinion written by Justice Sotomayor, the Court held that finding “transformativeness” under factor one of the fair use test requires more than a broad purpose to make something new; it defends the derivative works right against encroachment by the “transformative” blob; and it reminds the courts not to confuse the inquiry into “purpose” with a subjective inquiry into “artistic intent.”

Shoring Up Boundaries Around “Transformative” Use

Without explicitly stating that the follow-on work must contain some perceptible element of comment on the work used, the Warhol opinion relies substantially on Campbell and the necessity there to find parody (a form of comment) in 2 Live Crew’s use of “Oh, Pretty Woman.” As the opinion states:

The Court found it necessary to determine whether 2 Live Crew’s transformation of Orbison’s song rose to the level of parody, a distinct purpose of commenting on the original or criticizing it. …the Court further explained that “[p]arody needs to mimic an original to make its point, and so has some claim to use the creation of its victim’s (or collective victims’) imagination, whereas satire can stand on its own two feet and so requires justification for the very act of borrowing.

This is significant because many fair use defenses since Campbell have been based on the generalized language in that decision suggesting that when a follow-on work expresses any “new meaning or message,” this may be sufficient to find that a use is “transformative.” In Warhol, the Court clarifies that this language cannot stand alone but must be read in context to the Campbell Court finding parody in the follow-on work in order to find “transformativeness.” In other words, a work that does not contain a hint of comment upon the original work used—and comment that may be reasonably understood by an ordinary observer—may not easily justify use of a protected work under factor one. As the opinion states …

The asserted commentary [by Warhol] is at Campbell’s lowest ebb. Because it “has no critical bearing on” Goldsmith’s photograph, the commentary’s “claim to fairness in borrowing from” her work “diminishes accordingly (if it does not vanish).”

So, because AWF could only claim (and reasonably so) that the Warhol screen makes broad comments about celebrity, fame, iconography, commercialism, et al.—but no comment about the Goldsmith photo itself—the Court finds nothing “transformative” in the work at issue (“Orange Prince”) as a matter of law. Then, absent a finding of “transformativeness,” the commercial use (i.e., the license to a magazine), which disfavors fair use, carries the day…

… [the] first fair use factor … focuses on whether an allegedly infringing use has a further purpose or different character, which is a matter of degree, and the degree of difference must be weighed against other considerations, like commercialism.

Derivative Works Right Protected

Among the difficulties fostered by over-broad readings of “transformativeness” is that it places the fair use defense in conflict with the author’s exclusive right to prepare derivative works. In practice, this can harm the author’s interest because, in the years since Campbell, a defendant who wins on the “transformative” question has tended to win the case. I am not saying that all those cases were decided incorrectly or that the Court has delivered a major reversal in fair use doctrine. On the contrary, the Court has merely shored up levees already in the caselaw, and one result should be to channel the fair use waters away from the derivative works pool …

Campbell cannot be read to mean that §107(1) weighs in favor of any use that adds new expression, meaning, or message. Otherwise, “transformative use” would swallow the copyright owner’s exclusive right to prepare derivative works, as many derivative works that “recast, transfor[m] or adap[t]” the original, §101, add new expression of some kind. [Emphasis added]

The question as to whether “Orange Prince” (or any of Warhol’s screens) are unlicensed derivative works was not addressed by the district court, which is how this became a fair use case, but the important outcome here is that the Supreme Court has refreshed the lines separating “transformative” use from the derivative works right as a matter of law.

Citing one example as to how this ruling might help creators intending to use protected works, in the ComicMix case, a poor understanding of “transformative” led a group of artists to create what was clearly an unlicensed derivative work in conflict with the rights reserved by Dr. Seuss Enterprises. ComicMix did not win in the end, but I would be willing to bet that if not for the pervasive fog in the “transformative” doctrine, the creators would not have embarked on a project making substantial use of protected works without obtaining permission from the rightsholder.

Fair Use Analysis Must Be Objective

Finally, the opinion provides guidance to lower courts that they must read the factor one “purpose” consideration as “… an objective inquiry into what a user does with an original work, not an inquiry into the subjective intent of the user, or into the meaning or impression that an art critic or judge draws from a work.” Again, given the limited scope of the question presented, the Court’s finding here is likely to have broad implications for fair use going forward.

The opinion holds that Warhol’s “Orange Prince” and Goldsmith’s photograph serve the same purpose—that of illustrating Prince—for which Condé Nast licensed the former for a special edition tribute magazine following Prince’s death. This “same purpose” finding may seem confusing because the two works are distinctly different expressions (a major point of dissent by Justice Kagan), but what the Court is saying is that it does not matter whether the photo reveals “vulnerable” Prince or if the Warhol screen depicts “iconic” Prince, and it does not matter why magazine editors will choose one image over another. What matters in a “transformative” use inquiry is an objective search for some perceivable, distinct purpose for use of the work at issue — and that purpose is likely to be comment on the original work …

…the meaning of a secondary work, as reasonably can be perceived, should be considered to the extent necessary to determine whether the purpose of the use is distinct from the original, for instance, because the use comments on, criticizes, or provides otherwise unavailable information about the original.

Again, absent some evidence of commentary upon the work used, the necessity of the use diminishes or vanishes. And to the extent the user of a work might be able to claim some distinctive purpose other than commentary, the courts are instructed to avoid entering the salons of fine artists and critics, who identify—and even invent—meaning in works of art. And that  brings us to the dissent written by Justice Kagan, which is joined by Chief Justice Roberts.

The Dissent Amplifies the Wrong Inquiry for Fair Use

In a surprisingly strident dissent, Justice Kagan devotes considerable time expounding upon Warhol’s methods and significance as an artist and then segues to a general art history lesson to emphasize the unremarkable point that artists borrow from other artists. In addition to being mundane, this axiom about creative work is so broad as to be irrelevant to this or any other consideration of fair use, which the majority opinion makes clear is fact-intensive and case-specific.

The tenor of the dissent connotes bias against copyright, including overwrought allegations that the majority opinion will “stifle new creativity,” a favorite refrain among copyright critics. For instance, Justice Kagan lambasts her colleagues failure to consider the obvious differences between Goldsmith’s photograph and Warhol’s screen. The dissent elides any discussion about the difficulty of balancing “transformation” favoring fair use with “transformation” to prepare derivative works, and in rejecting the majority’s reassertion of the limits in Campbell, Justice Kagan writes:

If Warhol had used Goldsmith’s photo to comment on or critique Goldsmith’s photo, he might have availed himself of that factor’s benefit (though why anyone would be interested in that work is mysterious). But because he instead commented on society –the dehumanizing culture of celebrity—he is (go figure) out of luck.

Absolutely, he’s out of luck. And he should be. The alternative, as the majority makes clear, is to foster a nearly unconditional fair use exception whereby “some difference” in the character of the secondary work is enough to win on factor one and then control the rest of the fair use inquiry. This has been the argument of many defendants and copyright skeptics, and it is gratifying to see the Court recognize that every use of a work results in “something new” and that this is too broad a rationale for finding that factor one always favors the user.

Justice Kagan’s snarky assertion that the majority is “blind” to the differences in the Warhol and Goldsmith expressions is unintentionally correct insofar as it is misplaced as criticism in a fair use inquiry. A substantial similarity consideration is more properly the forum for expert testimony and side-by-side comparisons of the expressions in the works at issue. Whereas, on the question presented here, the majority has stated that, indeed, blindness to broad and subjective artistic intent is the proper way to approach “transformativeness.” The inquiry primarily looks for one element—”critical bearing” on the work used. And as a rule, this outcome should provide clearer guidance to courts, practitioners, and creators who want to use protected works.

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