Richard Prince loses copyright lawsuit; ordered to destroy paintings

By Harriet Staff

Appropriation artist Richard Prince has been ordered to destroy paintings worth millions of dollars after a court ruled that the work violates copyright, according to The Guardian. The paintings, which are “reworkings” of photographs of Rastafarians by French photographer Patrick Cariou, feature the addition of “spotches” and other relatively small elements, but retain the basic structure of the originals. However, judging by the thumbnails above The Guardian story, the works were significantly changed by Prince. No one would mistake the one for the other:

Prince's lawyers had told Deborah Batts, a federal judge sitting in Manhattan, that Cariou's photographs of Rastafarians, taken over six years, were "mere compilations of facts … arranged with minimum creativity … [and were] therefore not protectable" by copyright law. Of the electric guitar he added to one of the photographs, Prince testified: "He plays the guitar now. It looks like he's always played the guitar, that's what my message was." The lawyers claimed "fair use" of the images.

Really? Prince thinks his message is “it looks like he’s always played the guitar?” Not much of a message. Which is a shame, because perhaps it was due to such sloppy reasoning that the judge ruled against him:

The judge ruled that rather than simply adding elements to an original work, a new piece should create something "plainly different from the original purposes for which it was created". He cited a landmark case in which the American artist Jeff Koons created an exaggerated sculpture based on a postcard of a couple with their arms full of puppies. Koons lost that case.

But doesn’t an “exaggerated sculpture” based on a postcard serve a “plainly different” purpose from the original? Sculptures and postcards are pretty dissimilar and all. In the same way, Prince’s versions of Cariou’s portraits clearly serve a different purpose from the originals. The originals are meant to document a people, and the reworkings are meant to manipulate the documentation of a people, thereby questioning the legitimacy of such a practice. In fact, one could argue that they serve completely opposite purposes. By virtue of sharing surface similarities, they could not be more different.

Originally Published: March 24th, 2011