“Transformative” art does not infringe copyright, Second Circuit rules

[Patrick Cariou v. Richard Prince, et al., 11-1197-cv, April 25, 2013.]

When United States District Court Judge Deborah Batts issued her decision in Cariou v. Prince on March 18, 2011, the art world shuddered. In 30 of his larger-than-life paintings, appropriation artist Richard Prince was found to have infringed on the copyrights of a French photographer, Patrick Cariou. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Prince is an artist of some renown. He shows at Gagosian Gallery, a contemporary art gallery that also shows Richard Serra, Damien Hirst, Edward Ruscha, Jeff Koons and many other art “stars” of the last three decades. His works sell for over a million dollars each.  And here was a federal judge not only ordering the immediate delivery of 30 of Prince’s artworks to Cariou, “for impounding, destruction or other disposition, as Plaintiff determines” but also the notification by  Prince and his gallery to the purchasers of any sold works that the works “were not lawfully made” and “cannot lawfully be displayed” – ever. (For the District Court decision, see Cariou v. Prince, Case No. 08 Civ. 11327, Slip Op. at 36-37 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 18, 2011)). It was both a shocking affront to freedom of expression and another depressing indication of copyright law run amok, with little care for the practices of contemporary art.

Artists can now breathe a partial sigh of relief. On April 25th, 2013, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Judge Batts’ decision, finding 25 of the 30 works non-infringing and sending the case back to Judge Batts to determine whether the remaining five works are infringing in accordance with the Second Circuit’s criteria. Although flawed, the Second Circuit’s decision is historic: it is the first time that a court has given a truly expansive reading to “fair use” outside the traditional confines of literary criticism, educational uses and parody.

The Patrick Cariou photographs Prince appropriated for his art depicted Jamaican Rastafarians and landscapes. They were reproduced in Cariou’s book entitled Yes Rasta, published in 2000. Cariou testified that his work was “extreme classical photography [and] portraiture” and he didn’t “want that book to look pop culture at all.” 7000 copies were printed, but most of them were sold below the suggested retail price. Cariou earned about $8,000 in royalties. But for a handful of private sales, Cariou did not sell or license the photographs – indeed he was reluctant to do so.

Cariou’s work obviously inspired Prince, but certainly not in the way Cariou would have hoped. Cariou’s artistic aims were irrelevant to Prince, who sought to “make a kind of fantastic, absolutely hip, up to date, contemporary take on the music scene.” Titled “Canal Zone,” the series also related to a “post-apocalyptic screenplay” that Prince dreamed up, which emphasized the themes of “equality of the sexes” and “the three relationships in the world, which are men and women, men and men, and women and women.” Whether Prince’s ideas seem sophomoric – how “up-to-date” could a reference to Joni Mitchell’s song, “Woodstock,” in the title of one of the works (“Back to the Garden”) be? — or whether Prince’s use of the Rastas’ images seems vaguely racist is beside the point: what mattered to the Second Circuit was whether he actually did something different with the appropriated work.

Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act provides that

the fair use of a copyrighted work … for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching …, scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include — (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 577-78, a 1994 decision upholding the right of rap group 2 Live Crew to create a parody of Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman, the Supreme Court warned that interpreting Section 107

is not to be simplified with bright-line rules, for the statute, like the doctrine it recognizes, calls for case-by-case analysis. The text employs the terms “including” and “such as” in the preamble paragraph to indicate the illustrative and not limitative function of the examples given, which thus provide only general guidance about the sorts of copying that courts and Congress most commonly had found to be fair uses. Nor may the four statutory factors be treated in isolation, one from another. All are to be explored, and the results weighed together, in light of the purposes of copyright.

Although the holding in the Campbell decision was confined to the question of whether 2 Live Crew’s song was “parody” of the original, the Supreme Court suggested, for the first time, that the appropriation of a pre-existing work was “fair use” if it was “transformative,” citing more than a dozen times to an article by Pierre Leval, then a judge in the United States District Court, Southern District of New York. The article, entitled “Toward a Fair Use Standard,” 103 Harvard Law Review 1105 (1990), boldly set forth the “transformative” standard, cogently arguing that when a work is appropriated, “fair use” required nothing more (or less) than that the new work create “new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understanding” or “employ the quoted matter in a different manner or for a different purpose from the original.” This is so, Judge Leval argued, because “[m]onopoly protection of intellectual property that impeded referential analysis … would strangle the creative process.”

Campbell came two years after the Second Circuit’s decision in Rogers v. Koons, 960 F.2d 301 (1992), where the Second Circuit ordered impounded and destroyed a Koons’ sculpture (reproduced in multiple), entitled “String of Puppies” for copyright infringement of a photograph with the same tableau. In its decision, the court considered first whether the appropriating work was a “parody” of the original (although the court also confused “satire” and “parody”) and rejected Koons’ claim to be “acting within an artistic tradition of commenting upon the commonplace” and making a “satirical critique” of materialistic society:

It is the rule in this Circuit that though the satire need not be only of the copied work and may, as appellants urge of “String of Puppies,” also be a parody of modern society, the copied work must be, at least in part, an object of the parody, otherwise there would be no need to conjure up the original work. [Citations omitted.]

We think this is a necessary rule, as were it otherwise there would be no real limitation on the copier’s use of another’s copyrighted work to make a statement on some aspect of society at large. If an infringement of copyrightable expression could be justified as fair use solely on the basis of the infringer’s claim to a higher or different artistic use–without insuring public awareness of the original work–there would be no practicable boundary to the fair use defense. Koons’ claim that his infringement of Rogers’ work is fair use solely because he is acting within an artistic tradition of commenting upon the commonplace thus cannot be accepted. The rule’s function is to insure that credit is given where credit is due. By requiring that the copied work be an object of the parody, we merely insist that the audience be aware that underlying the parody there is an original and separate expression, attributable to a different artist. This awareness may come from the fact that the copied work is publicly known or because its existence is in some manner acknowledged by the parodist in connection with the parody.

Finding no parody, the court concluded that “String of Puppies” was “substantially similar” to the original work – with the same “expressions,” content and meaning – and thus an infringement.

It was this decision to which Judge Batts seemed to adhere in her opinion in Cariou, thereby missing the change that occurred in the Second Circuit’s thinking following Judge Leval’s appointment to the Second Circuit in 1993. (Judge Leval assumed senior status in 2002.) By 2006, when the Second Circuit decided Blanch v. Koons, 467 F.3d 244, it had more or less embraced Judge Leval’s doctrine which, after all, had been heavily cited by the Supreme Court. This time around, Koons’ work was found to be non-infringing. Where Rogers v. Koons never even mentioned the word “transformative,” Blanch v. Koons was based on it:

The test for whether [Koons’ use] is “transformative,” then, is whether it “merely supersedes the objects of the original creation, or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message.” … The test almost perfectly describes Koons’s adaptation of [the original work]: the use of a fashion photograph created for publication in a glossy American “lifestyles” magazine — with changes of its colors, the background against which it is portrayed, the medium, the size of the objects pictured, and, crucially, their entirely different purpose and meaning — as part of a massive painting commissioned for exhibition in a German art-gallery space. We therefore conclude that the use in question was transformative.

Although Judge Batts cited Blanch, she didn’t understand its implications and focused instead on the fact that Koons’ work, by commenting “on the ways in which some of our most basic appetites — for food, play and sex — are mediated by popular images,” could also be understood as commenting on the original photograph as an example of such popular images. Adding her reading of Rogers to her narrow understanding of Blanch and Campbell, she concluded:

The Court is aware of no precedent holding that such use is fair absent transformative comment on the original. To the contrary, the illustrative fair uses listed in the preamble to § 107 “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching [ …], scholarship, [and] research” — all have at their core a focus on the original works or their historical context, and all of the precedent this Court can identify imposes a requirement that the new work in some way comment on, relate to the historical context of, or critically refer back to the original works.
*     *     *
“If an infringement of copyrightable expression could be justified as fair use solely on the basis of the infringer’s claim to a higher or different artistic use . . . there would be no practicable boundary to the fair use defense.” Rogers v. Koons, 960 F.2d at 310. The Court therefore declines Defendants’ invitation to find that appropriation art is per se fair use, regardless of whether or not the new artwork in any way comments on the original works appropriated. Accordingly, Prince’s Paintings are transformative only to the extent that they comment on the Photos; to the extent they merely recast, transform, or adapt the Photos, Prince’s Paintings are instead infringing derivative works.

The Second Circuit rejected every aspect of Judge Batts’ decision. In doing so, it expanded the meaning of “transformative” by clarifying that the allegedly infringing work need not refer to or comment in any way upon the appropriated work. “We agree with Appellants,” the court wrote, “that the law does not require that a secondary use comment on the original artist or work, or popular culture.” The decision continued:

Certainly, many types of fair use, such as satire and parody, invariably comment on an original work and/or on popular culture. For example, the rap group 2 Live Crew’s parody of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” “was clearly intended to ridicule the white-bread original.” [citing Campbell). Much of Andy Warhol’s work, including work incorporating appropriated images of Campbell’s soup cans or of Marilyn Monroe, comments on consumer culture and explores the relationship between celebrity culture and advertising. As even Cariou concedes, however, the district court’s legal premise was not correct. The law imposes no requirement that a work comment on the original or its author in order to be considered transformative, and a secondary work may constitute a fair use even if it serves some purpose other than those (criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research) identified in the preamble to the statute. … Instead, as the Supreme Court as well as decisions from our court have emphasized, to qualify as a fair use, a new work generally must alter the original with “new expression, meaning, or message.” [Here, the Second Circuit cited Campbell and Blanch, both of which were citing Judge Leval.]

Furthermore, the court held, “Prince’s work could be transformative even without … Prince’s stated intention to do so. Rather than confining our inquiry to Prince’s explanations of his artworks, we instead examine how the artworks may “reasonably be perceived” in order to assess their transformative nature.”

The court meant two things by this. First, in appropriating a work of art, the artist need not intend to address any aspect of the appropriated work, the artist who created it or culture in general. In fact, he or she need not intend to create any particular meaning at all. It is enough to use the appropriated work in a new way to create different ideas and expressions. Second, the law doesn’t require the artist to explain the meaning of his or her work, in part because any explanation is likely to be self-serving, and also because the meaning of an artwork is completed by the viewer.

The Second Circuit’s finding that Prince’s work sufficiently transformed Cariou’s photographs so as to qualify it as “fair use” turned mainly on a side-by-side comparison. The crucial (indeed, transformative) nature of the Second Circuit’s decision is its complete (and refreshing) lack of concern with meanings and messages and its focus instead on visual and physical transformation resulting from the artistic process:

Here, our observation of Prince’s artworks themselves convinces us of the transformative nature of all but five, which we discuss separately below. 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. Cariou’s black-and-white photographs were printed in a 9 1/2″ x 12″ book. Prince has created collages on canvas that incorporate color, feature distorted human and other forms and settings, and measure between ten and nearly a hundred times the size of the photographs. Prince’s composition, presentation, scale, color palette, and media are fundamentally different and new compared to the photographs, as is the expressive nature of Prince’s work.

Unfortunately, the court refused to decide whether five remaining works by Prince (GraduationMeditationCanal Zone (2007), Canal Zone (2008) and Charlie Company) were sufficiently different as to be transformative. “Certainly”, the Court said, “there are key differences in those artworks compared to the photographs they incorporate.” The court went on to describe some of those differences, but thought that the five works were either “substantially unaltered” or “aesthetically similar to Cariou’s original work because it maintains the pastoral background and individual focal point of the original photograph” or “the cumulative effect is of the subject in a habitat replete with lush greenery, not dissimilar from many of Cariou’s Yes Rasta photographs.” This waffling reveals a weakness in the court’s test. The fate of the five works now lies in the hands of Judge Batts who, if she doesn’t order the matter put before a jury, will almost certainly condemn the work, given her obvious dislike of Prince’s work the first time around and the fact that the Second Circuit has essentially presented her with a roadmap for doing so.

Two major questions remain open following this decision. The first is whether the  Cariou decision will reach into other media, such as music, and other federal jurisdictions. Until now, federal courts have been largely deaf to the issue of sampling (the appropriation of a master recording) and interpolation (the appropriation of a musical composition). In the Sixth Circuit, for instance, the appropriation of a single chord or a brief, insubstantial passage has been enough to justify the impoundment and destruction of millions of record albums by major recording artists, regardless of the vastly transformative nature of the new works. In fact, the Sixth Circuit is apparently completely unaware of the “transformative” test.

The second question is whether the Second Circuit (or any other court) can give the “transformative” test a brighter line. This may be impossible, given that “fair use” is inherently, and no doubt intentionally, a fuzzy concept. Even the Supreme Court mandated a “case-by-case analysis,” which invariably requires an intellectual dance. That said, no other test has even come close to tolerating a significant degree of appropriation, which is crucial to contemporary art, and hence the progress of art.

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