Art World Applauds Landmark Copyright Decision

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a key ruling in a closely watched copyright infringement case. The decision in Cariou v. Prince revolved around the application of the fair use doctrine in modern art.

The Facts of the Case

In 2000, Patrick Cariou published Yes Rasta, a book of photographs taken over the course of six years spent living among Rastafarians in Jamaica. Richard Prince altered and incorporated several of Cariou’s Yes Rasta photographs into a series of paintings and collages, called Canal Zone. They were exhibited publicly at New York’s Gagosian Gallery. Gagosian also published and sold an exhibition catalog that contained reproductions of Prince’s paintings and images from Prince’s workshop.

Cariou subsequently sued Prince and Gagosian, alleging that Prince’s Canal Zone works and exhibition catalog infringed on Cariou’s copyrights in the incorporated Yes Rasta photographs. The defendants asserted a fair use defense.

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and entered a permanent injunction. On appeal, the defendants argued that the district court imposed an incorrect legal standard when it concluded that, in order to qualify for a fair use defense, Prince’s work must “comment on Cariou, on Cariou’s Photos, or on aspects of popular culture associated with Cariou or the Photos.”

The Court’s Decision

The Second Circuit ultimately agreed that the district court applied the incorrect standard to determine whether Prince’s artworks make fair use of Cariou’s copyrighted photographs, holding that “the law does not require that a secondary use comment on the original artist or work, or popular culture.” Rather, a reasonable observer must only find the work to be transformative.

With regard to the majority of the photographs at issue, the appeals court found that Cariou’s work was protected under the fair use doctrine, finding that the modern art constituted a “new expression.”

“Where Cariou’s serene and deliberately composed portraits and landscape photographs depict the natural beauty of the Rastafarians and their surrounding environs,” the decision explained, “Prince’s crude and jarring works, on the other hand, are hectic and provocative.”


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