Saturday 5 March 2016

Plus Ça Change… Prince, Rastafarians, and Fair Use

You may remember that Richard Prince, the Gagosian Gallery, and Larry Gagosian have been sued by photographer Donald Graham for copyright infringement in the Southern District of New York (SDNY). Plaintiffs moved to dismiss on February 22, asserting a fair use defense (motion).

Appropriation artists and copyright

Prince used Graham’s Untitled (Portrait) to create one of the works presented at his New Portraits exhibition (see here). The original image had been cropped and posted on Instagram, without Graham’s permission, by another Instagram user, then reposted by yet another user. Prince reposted it again from his own Instagram account, adding the comment “ReCanal Zinian da lam jam,” followed by an emoji (see p. 11 of the motion).
Prince stands at the corner of fair use and copyright infringement

In his motion, Prince placed himself in “a long line of [appropriation] artists” such as Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Jeff Koons. The latter has been involved in several copyright infringement suits over his work, for instance Rogers v. Koons where the Second Circuit found no fair use. But in Blanch v. Koons, the Second Circuit found that Koon’s appropriation of a photograph reproduced, at a different angle, in a painting was protected by fair use. Following this Second Circuit decision, Judge Stanton from the SDNY denied plaintiff Blanch’s motion for sanctions, which gave him an opportunity to explain the dynamic between appropriation artists and copyright:

“Appropriation artists take other artists' work and use it in their own art, appropriating it and incorporating it in their own product with or without changes. Because of this appropriation, often (as in this case) done without giving credit to the original artist, the appropriation artists can expect that their work may attract lawsuits. They must accept the risks of defense, including the time, effort, and expenses involved. While that does not remove the appropriation artist from the protection of the statute, litigation is a risk he knowingly incurs when he copies the other's work.”

Is this case the same as Cariou?

In his motion, Prince argued that, in Cariou v. Prince, “the Second Circuit held that “appropriation art” created by Prince that is substantially similar to the artwork at issue here constituted fair use as a matter of law” and argues that the Graham lawsuit “reflects an attempt to essentially re-litigate Cariou and should be dismissed with prejudice”(p. 2).

However, every fair use case is different since fair use is a mixed question of law and fact, as acknowledged by Prince on p. 12 of his motion. In Cariou, the Second Circuit set aside five artworks, remanding to the SDNY to consider whether the use of Cariou’s work was fair. Because the case settled, the SDNY did not have an opportunity to rule on that point on remand. Whether a court will find this Prince work to be fair use is an open question.

Is Prince’s character of the use of Graham’s photograph the same than his use of Cariou’s photographs? The Second Circuit noted in Cariou that “[t]he portions of the [Cariou photographs] used, and the amount of each artwork that they constitute, vary significantly from piece to piece” (at 699). As the affirmative defense of fair use is a matter of both law and fact, Cariou cannot be interpreted as the Second Circuit having given carte blanche to Prince to create any derivative works based on Rastafarian photographs “as a matter of law.” Indeed, in Cariou, the Second Circuit took care to note that its conclusion that twenty-five of Prince’s works were protected by fair use “should not be taken to suggest… that any cosmetic changes to the photographs would necessarily constitute fair use“ (at 708).

Fair use or not?

The Graham photograph is somewhat similar to the Cariou photographs, as they are classic black and white portraits of a Rastafarian. However, if the nature of the original work is one of the four fair use factors used by courts to determine whether a particular use of a work protected by copyright is fair, the first factor, the purpose and the character of the use, is “[t]he heart of the fair use inquiry” (Blanch at 251).

A work is transformative, as explained by the Supreme Court in 1994, if it does not merely supersede the original work, but instead “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with a new expression, meaning or message… in other words, whether and to what extent the new work is transformative”, Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., at 577-578.  

What is determining is whether the new work is transformative, and Prince recognizes this in his motion (p.1). He argued that, by incorporating Plaintiff’s photograph into a social media post, and adding “Instagram visuals and text,” the derivative work has become “a commentary on the power of social media to broadly disseminate others’ work” (p.3).

To create his Canal Zone series, Prince had torn multiple photographs from the Cariou book, enlarged them using inkjet printing, pinned them to plywood, then altered them by painting or collaging over them, sometimes using only parts of the original photographs, sometimes tinting them, sometimes adding photographs from other artists. The result was declared fair use by the Second Circuit. In our case, Prince inkjet printed his original Instagram repost of the Graham picture, complete with his comment, with no further change, except for the change in format and size.

But whether a particular work is transformative does not depend on the amount of sweat of the brow, and a derivative work can be created by a mere stroke of the pen, such as Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. Nevertheless, the more detailed the process to create a derivate work is, the more likely it is transformative.

It remains to be seen if the SDNY will find this new Prince appropriation work to be fair use. The court is becoming somewhat an expert on appropriation art. Jeff Koons has recently been sued in the SDNY for copyright infringement over the use of a photograph by a commercial photographer, Mitchel Gray. Gray claims that his photograph of a couple on a beach, which he had licensed in 1986 to Gordon’s Gin for the company to create an ad, was reproduced the same year by Koons as part of his “Luxury and Degradation” series. Koons reproduced the whole ad, with no change. Mr. Gray only discovered this use in July 2015 and filed his suit.

We’ll see how this case and the Koons case will proceed. ReCanal Zinian da lam jam.

Image is courtesy of Flickr user Joseph Teegardin under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license.


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