(Reuters) – In a case involving paintings by the late artist Andy Warhol, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider a question that is as philosophical as it is legal: What is the line between art and copyright theft when the artwork is inspired by something else material?
The justices will hear arguments on Wednesday in a copyright dispute between Mr. Warhol’s estate and celebrity photographer Lynn Goldsmith over his paintings based on a 1981 photograph she took of rock star Prince.
The case is about how courts decide when an artist makes “fair use” of another’s work under copyright law. The dispute over the legal boundary between inspiration and addiction has sparked widespread interest in its implications for artists.
Mr. Warhol, who died in 1987, was a central figure in the pop art movement that emerged in the 1950s, known for his whimsical style and bold use of color. He often created silkscreen paintings and other works inspired by photos of famous subjects, including actresses Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, Chinese leader Mao Zedong, boxer Muhammad Ali, rocker Debbie Harry, and commercial products including Campbell Soup cans.
Ms. Goldsmith photographed Prince for Newsweek magazine in 1981. Warhol made 14 silkscreen prints and two pencil illustrations based on one of Ms. Goldsmith’s Prince photos.
Goldsmith has said she learned about Mr. Warhol’s work only after Prince’s death in 2016. Goldsmith sued the Andy Warhol Foundation for copyright infringement in 2017 after it asked a federal court in Manhattan to rule that his work did not infringe her rights. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the estate’s appeal of a lower court ruling in favor of Ms. Goldsmith.
Copyright law sometimes allows fair use of copyrighted works without the permission of the creator. A key factor that courts consider when determining fair use is whether it has a “transformative” purpose such as parody, education or criticism.
The Supreme Court has not ruled on fair use in art since 1994, when it found that rap group 2 Live Crew’s parody of singer Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” made fair use of the 1960s song. But the court’s current 6-3 conservative majority has shown little reluctance to overturn precedent.