Now, photographer Donald Graham has filed a copyright infringement suit against Prince, the Gagosian Gallery, and its owner Larry Gagosian (Thank you Mark Jaffe for posting the complaint!) Graham claims that Prince used the “Rastafarian Smoking a Joint” photograph without permission in the New Portraits exhibition. Prince presented inkjet prints on canvases of images he had found on Instagram, complete with his own comments as @richardprince4nd. This did not fare well with several authors of the photographs, but so far Donald Graham is the only one who has taken legal action.
It is not the first time that Richard Prince is been sued for copyright infringement. Patrick Cariou, the author of the Yes Rasta photography book, sued Prince after he had used some of the Yes Rasta photographs to create his Canal Zone series, also presented at the Gagosian Gallery. The Second Circuit found this use to be fair. Just like Cariou, Graham had traveled to Jamaica and taken black and white pictures of Rastafarians after gaining their trust. Does that insure that a court will find Prince’s use of Graham’s work to be fair?
This Time, It May Not Be Fair Use
Fair use is a defense to copyright infringement, but it is not fool-proof or automatic. Instead, judges use four non-exclusives factors to determine if a particular use of a work protected by copyright is fair: (1) purpose and character of the use, (2) nature of the copyrighted work, (3) amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and (4) effect of the use on the potential market.
|Is Fair Use Once More Coming to Town?|
Graham had not posted himself a reproduction of his work on Instagram, but a third party did, without Graham’s authorization. Under the post, Prince added the comment ““Canal Zinian da lam jam”, which may allude to his Canal Zone series, deemed to be fair use, and printed the page featuring the Graham photograph and his comments.
In Cariou v. Prince, the Second Circuit noted that “Prince altered [the Cariou] photographs significantly” (at 699). Adding a nonsensical comment under a photograph, even if one chooses to describe it as poetry, is not a significant alteration of the original work. This point is likely to be debated by the parties, as the Supreme Court stared in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, when explaining the first fair use factor, that “the more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors, like commercialism, that weigh against a finding of fair use" (at 579).
In Cariou, the Second Circuit explained:
“These twenty-five of Prince's artworks manifest an entirely different aesthetic from Cariou's photographs. Where Cariou's serene and deliberately composed portraits and landscape photographs depict the natural beauty of Rastafarians and their surrounding environs, Prince's crude and jarring works, on the other hand, are hectic and provocative.”
In our case, one would be at pain to describe Prince’s use of Graham’s photography as being “hectic and provocative. “ It may be considered a provocation, but this does still not make the work “provocative” for fair use purposes.
Prince knows how to provoke: he posted a comment about the Graham suit on Twitter: “U want fame? Take mine. Only thing that counts is good art. All the everything else is bullshit.” Interestingly, fair use protects art whether it is good or not, without the judges having to concern themselves about whether fair use is good art or not, or even if it is art at all, or whether the author of the work is famous or not .
As for the fourth factor, the effect on the use on the market, Graham does license his work, including the work at stake, which was not the case in Cariou, and so Prince’s use may be deemed to have an effect on the market.
A Lucrative Business, Thanks to Copyright
Graham posted on Instagram a view of the New Portraits exhibition, including the print reproducing his own work, and added the hashtag #PrinceofAppropriation. The complaint argues that Prince “has achieved notoriety in the “appropriation art” industry for his blatant disregard of copyright law” (at 23).
All the prints forming the New Portraits exhibition have been sold. The Gagosian Gallery has published a catalog of the exhibition, and, according to the Complaint (at 35) “a gigantic photograph of the Exhibition prominently featuring the Infringing Work on a billboard at 50th Street and West Side Highway in New York City for several months, until at least July 2015.”
As noted in the complaint (at 28), the Gagosian Gallery is aware that copyright law prevents a third party to reproduce its inventory without permission (“All images are subject to copyright. Gallery approval must be granted prior to reproduction.” Therefore, Graham himself would have to ask permission to reproduce the unauthorized reproduction of this work by Prince reproducing the original unauthorized post on Instagram by a third party (dizzy yet?).
This case is on the watch list of every IP attorney in the US. Happy New Year!