A New View on Using Copyrighted Images
By Michael McCullough
When a Federal court scratches its head about how to regulate the art market, get ready for total baldness as you start tearing out your hair. Last week, a Federal Appeals Court in New York issued one of the daftest opinions of recent memory in the copyright infringement case against Richard Prince. As you read the decision you get a sense that the court not only misunderstands the art market completely but that it lost track of what the copyright law was meant to protect. If the decision is not overruled by the Supreme Court then the case will certainly change the way artists use appropriated images.
I don’t think the judges ever thought to consider the difference between artistic and commercial achievements in the art market, a common problem in our larger society. And you can see this coming from a mile away when they cart out the Great White Father, himself, as the poster boy for 20th century expressionism. They describe Warhol’s work, incorporating appropriated images of Campbell’s soup cans or of Marilyn Monroe, as commentary on consumer culture and exploring the relationship between celebrity culture and advertising. The first error in this reasoning is that it’s Duchamp and not Warhol who sets the standard for artistic expression in the 20th century. The court forgets that appropriation, at its core, is a philosophical inquiry into a person’s relationship with the material world and not a psychological tour of the various artists’ and patrons contributing to the dialogue. Furthermore, Warhol’s appropriations were largely of images already commercialized, as his intent was to comment on a commercial, consumer society; since the images had been put into the commerce to promote products or people, the people who owned those copyrights were happy for Warhol to exploit them. During his lifetime, Warhol retained the copyright to his own artworks and never addressed the issue of any rights of the Campbell Soup Company. It’s interesting how the court completely misses that Warhol’s use of Campbell’s copyright was certainly a copyright violation in 1962. Warhol never sought permission from the Campbell Soup Company to paint their soup cans, but, then again, the company viewed his use of their copyright as amusing, expressive, and confirming the status of their tasty soup in American culture. All of this is aside from the fact that it was free advertising for Campbell’s, something no marketing department would balk at. It was only after Warhol’s death, when the Andy Warhol Foundation began making licensing agreements with various manufacturers to use Warhol’s imagery on products, that there was an official legal agreement between the Andy Warhol Foundation and Campbell Soup Company. Presently, both parties own a stake in the copyright and neither party can make licensing agreements without the other party’s permission.
I won’t even begin to address Warhol’s use of celebrity images, as that discussion could take volumes to complete. Suffice it to say that most, if not all, of Warhol’s celebrity subjects would have happily given their and their photographers’ copyrights in those images in exchange for Warhol’s endorsement of their iconic status. The fact that the court made no distinction between Warhol’s use of consumer products and his use of celebrity imagery is another sign of something gone awry.
In contradistinction, the photographs done by Cariou and appropriated by Prince were not put into the consumer culture in any comparable way to the images appropriated by Warhol. Again, the court misses the idea that Warhol’s use of images certainly violated copyrights at the time; it’s just that the owners didn’t object because they already had the iconic status that Warhol was commenting on, so the use offered no harm to them. In contrast, Prince’s use of Cariou’s images does nothing for Cariou and allows Prince to exploit Cariou’s work in a way the copyright law was meant to dissuade. And here’s another comparison that is telling: Warhol only sold five of his 32 soup can paintings at the opening show in 1962 for a hundred dollars each. On the other hand, some of Prince’s paintings and collages in the Canal Zone series sold for over one million dollars. Could the court have considered the economic exploitation as a factor in whether Prince’s use was a “fair use”?
The answer is yes, but they decided not to. The Copyright Law of 1976 allows a court to consider “the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.” This part of the law is meant to favor nonprofit uses over commercial uses, but within the realm of permissible commercial uses the court could have considered the commercial exploitation of Cariou’s photographs. Instead, they decided that since Prince’s works were “transformative” they were not going to “place much significance” on the fact that the use was commercial. In essence, the commercial versus nonprofit distinction has been abandoned.
The court also said that Prince’s work needn’t comment on Cariou’s images or on aspects of popular culture closely associated with the images, as the law does not require the secondary use to comment on the original artist or work, or on popular culture. They found that twenty five of Prince’s artworks make fair use Cariou’s copyrighted photographs because they are “transformative.” The other five works were sent back to the lower court for a decision based upon the courts new standard.
Now that an artist need not justify the secondary use with some specific commentary or criticism, the new work must only alter the original with “new expression, meaning, or message” to qualify as a fair use. In that regard, Judge Barrington Parker, Jr. wrote, “[w]hat is critical is how the work in question appears to the reasonable observer, not simply what an artist might say about a particular piece or body of work. Prince’s work could be transformative even without commenting on Cariou’s work or on culture, and even without Prince’s stated intention to do so.”
Of course, the “reasonable observer” in the final analysis will be a judge, so it will be difficult for an artist to make any decisions about employing fair use without the aid of a lawyer. And that- the need to have a lawyer in the artist’s studio passing judgment on the work- might just mark the end of appropriation art as we know it.