Moving the lines between copyright and fair use


Image by Richard Prince from “Canal Zone” series

Last month Richard Prince made history when the court ruling against him for copyright infringement against him was overturned.

In 2008 Prince created a series of paintings, “Canal Zone,” which incorporated the photographs of Patrick Cariou from his book Yes, Rasta. The work was shown at Gagosian Gallery in New York. In 2009 Cariou filed a copyright infringement case against Prince, Gagosian Gallery, Lawrence Gagosian, and  Rizzoli Publications. In March 2011, Judge Deborah Batts ruled against Prince and ordered the defendants to destroy remaining copies of the catalog and unsold paintings from the series that use Cariou’s photographs. Any collectors who own sold artwork were to be informed it would be illegal for them to publicly display the paintings.

One of the key factors in determining fair use is whether or not the work is transformative. During the case Prince testified the the work “didn’t really have a message.” Courtroom reports stated that the judge responded by assessing that for fair use to apply, a new work of art must be transformative—that it must “in some way comment on, relate to the historical context of, or critically refer back to the original work.”(1)

After the 2009 court ruling Cariou stated, “This lawsuit is about arrogance, laziness and an overwhelming sense of power. It has nothing to do with art,” Cariou told Art in America, “At the end of the day, he took 41 pictures—it’s not just one little part. It’s almost half of the book. I really don’t understand how he thought he could get away with it.”(2)

Gagosian and Prince appealed the decision and the courts ruled last month that Batts’s interpretation was incorrect and that “the law does not require that a secondary use comment on the original artist or work, or popular culture,” but only that a reasonable observer find the work to be transformative.(3) In its decision the court wrote that Prince’s work conveyed an entirely different aesthetic and while Cariou’s photos depicted the natural beauty of Rastafarians and their environment, Prince’s work is jarring and provocative.

This case is seen as a landmark. If the original ruling were not overturned, it could mean any artist who has copied, altered, or collaged other artists work could be found in violation of copyright. It could have affected artists like Andy Warhol and his images of Campbell Soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. Current and future implications for contemporary art and culture abound. As memes based off of copyright protected images, characters, or snippets from TV shower the internet, questions arise about the legal liabilities that their posters incur.

Where do you think the lines fall between copyright infringement and fair use? Should the original ruling remain or were the courts right in overturning the decision? Does contemporary culture call for a change in copyright law and fair use?





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