Richard Prince “New Portraits” Show Was a Big Fair Use Error

Yesterday, New York federal judge Sidney Stein ruled that Richard Prince, one of the most famous appropriation artists in the world, infringed the copyright rights of photographers Donald Graham and Eric McNatt by using their works in the controversial “New Portraits” series. Prince and his co-defendant, gallery owner Lawrence Gagosian, are ordered to pay Graham and McNatt five times the sale price of Prince’s infringing canvases, plus unspecified expenses. Further, Prince is “enjoined from reproducing, modifying, preparing derivative works from, displaying publicly, selling, offering to sell, or otherwise distributing the” photographs belonging to Graham and McNatt.

The “New Portraits” canvasses sold for prices ranging between about $40,000 and $150,000, indicating that the combined awards will be substantially higher than maximum statutory damages in an outcome that highlights the significance of the Supreme Court decision in Andy Warhol Foundation v. Lynn Goldsmith. I think it’s fair to say that the over-expansive interpretation of “transformativeness” under the fair use factor one analysis is now settled, and independent creators—perhaps especially those who are not celebrities—will benefit as a result.

The “New Portraits” series stirred outrage in the Fall of 2014, when Prince and New York’s Madison Gallery first exhibited the 5’ x 6’ canvasses, the hearts of which were made by copying images that both amateurs and professionals had posted to Instagram. Subsequently, the show moved to the Gagosian Gallery, where the “Instagram series” continued to make headlines with the Prince canvasses selling to collectors for prices many found shocking considering that nearly the entire work being sold was somebody else’s photograph.

Opinions vary about the “New Portraits” series as an artistic statement, but the question of copyright infringement vs. fair use became clearer on May 11, 2023, when Judge Stein denied Prince’s motion for summary judgment (MSJ), and then the matter became even sharper about a week later with the Warhol decision. As the district court stated in May:

A close comparison reveals that Prince enlarged the images when he printed them onto the canvases, cropped portions of the photographs, added the Instagram frame, and included his own comments. But these alterations do not begin to approach those found to be transformative as a matter of law by the Second Circuit.

Even before Warhol, the district court found unpersuasive Prince’s shifting theories as to why his use was transformative. Arguing at the outset that the purpose of “New Portraits” was just “art and fun,” Prince later tried to hone his defense, averring that the series was a comment about social media and culture. Indeed, that commentary was present in the show—I said as much when the story was new—but that kind of commentary does not make the uses at issue fair uses.

As the district court stated in denying Prince’s MSJ, and then SCOTUS affirmed resoundingly in Warhol, the use of a protected work must express some “critical bearing” on the work used. With that clear finding in a Supreme Court case so obviously analogous to the “New Portraits” case, Prince could not have expected to prevail had he proceeded to trial. His canvasses titled Portrait of Rastajay 92 and Portrait of Kim Gordon express no comment of any kind about Graham’s Rastafarian Smoking a Joint or McNatt’s Kim Gordon 1 respectively.

“Phony fraud photographers keep mooching me. Why? I changed the game.”

Tweet by Richard Prince, 2017

Photographers everywhere will celebrate this outcome, not only as a validation of their copyright rights, but also because Richard Prince himself is hardly modest about his appropriations or his presumed right to make them. Amid a 2016 tweet storm over the use of Graham’s photograph, Prince wrote defiantly:  “U want fame? Take mine. Only thing that counts is good art. All the everything else is bullshit.” To this, an art critic friend Jerry Saltz added, “Amen. These litigious ‘artists’ ‘photographers’ are so middle-class conservative it shivers the timbers. Neo-know-nothings.” Well, timbers shivered, I guess. Turns out that knowing nothing about fair use can be costly.

On that point, it is highly significant that this case does not end in a confidential settlement, in which the plaintiffs would ordinarily receive more money. According to plaintiff’s attorney David Marriott of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Graham and McNatt both wanted a public ruling by the court to send a message to the creative community that what Prince had done was categorically not allowed under the fair use exception.

Graham’s “Untimely” Registration

Of note, Donald Graham’s resolution in this case is another example of the importance of timely registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. At the time Prince first exhibited Rastafarian Smoking a Joint, the photograph, created in 1996, was not registered. This could have barred Graham a path to federal litigation, or at least deny him access to statutory damages, which would require that he prove actual damages (i.e., loss of income). Graham registered the photograph in October after the Madison show went up that September. That was too late to effectively litigate the original infringement, but Prince and Gagosian subsequently made infringing use of Rastafarian by producing a billboard and art book, which together violated Graham’s rights of reproduction, display, and distribution.

Warhol Reins in Prince

As discussed in other posts, there are aspects of the Warhol case that remain food for thought, if not litigation—namely the unanswered, substantial similarity question as to whether Warhol copied the protectable expression in the Goldsmith photograph. But the importance of that decision was that it resharpened the contours of the transformative consideration after many years in which defendants have tried to present vague and overbroad definitions that would deprive the fair use doctrine of all meaning.

Richard Prince’s attempt to fit the “New Portraits” project into a transformative finding was a classic and high-profile example of pushing the boundary of the fair use doctrine beyond reason. And it is hard to miss the cultural significance of the Court’s posthumous check on Andy Warhol ultimately tempering the hubris of Richard Prince. Both artists benefitted substantially from the metaphysics of merely attaching their names to works, including creative expressions they did not really make. As such, the judgment in Graham and McNatt’s favor is a satisfying punctuation to this saga worthy of a toast. Cheers!

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)