Warhol Foundation Fires First Shot in Legal Battle Over Prince-Themed Artworks

In an unusual act of preemptive legal warfare, the Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts has filed a lawsuit against photographer Lynn Goldsmith over some artworks featuring the image of the late pop icon Prince, claiming that she is attempting to “shake down” the organization.

The civil complaint in US District Court evidently comes after Goldsmith’s assertion that Warhol violated the copyright of her photographs of Prince, taken in 1981, when they were used to make the artist’s screenprints.

According to the complaint, the purpose of the suit is to “protect the works and legacy of Andy Warhol.”

The foundation is seeking “declaratory judgment” that the works in Warhol’s “Prince” series do not infringe upon Goldsmith’s copyright in the photograph, and states that Warhol’s portraits are “transformative or are otherwise protected fair use.” Further, the complaint asserts that Goldsmith’s “claims” are barred by the statute of limitations.

The 1984 <i>Vanity Fair</i> article as reproduced in court documents.

The 1984 Vanity Fair article as reproduced in court documents.

The 30-page complaint goes into extensive detail about Goldsmith’s photograph and Warhol’s process including how he transformed the image in the silkscreen and other portraits he created. It also notes that an image was used in a high profile 1984 Vanity Fair spread titled “Purple Fame: An Appreciation of Prince at the Height of His Powers.”

It also asserts that Goldsmith knew about Warhol’s Prince series at the time. “Any reasonable person in Defendants’ position would have reviewed the November 1984 issue of Vanity Fair, if only to confirm that Vanity Fair had complied with the license terms described above.” The complaint also cites numerous auction sales and museum displays of the Warhol “Prince” series over the years.

Lynn Goldsmith's 1981 photo of Prince was the basis for an Andy Warhol screen print. Courtesy of the court filing.

Lynn Goldsmith’s 1981 photo of Prince was the basis for an Andy Warhol screen print. Courtesy of the court filing.

“More than 30 years after one of Warhol’s Prince portraits appeared in Vanity Fair, Goldsmith claimed that she first learned about the Prince series in 2016 and attempted to shake down the foundation,” the complaint says. It further asserts that Goldsmith knew Warhol’s portraits constituted fair use when she complained to the foundation and “demanded” a “substantial” sum of money, though the amount is not specified.

In addition to declaratory judgment, the foundation is seeking retribution in the form of money, including the cost of the suit and attorneys’ fees.

The Warhol foundation is being represented by Boies Schiller Flexner, the same firm that defended it in a class action suit that settled in 2011. Boies Schiller also represented artist Richard Prince when he and dealer Larry Gagosian were sued by photographer Patrick Cariou for copyright infringement (the case was settled in 2014). Attorney Luke Nikas, who is representing the foundation in the current action, also served as the defense attorney for art dealer and former Knoedler Gallery president Ann Freedman in a forgery lawsuit in federal court that was settled last February.

UPDATE: artnet News received an email from Goldsmith in response to a request for comment. Stay tuned for our update.

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