Richard Prince Settles Copyright Dispute with Photographers, Agrees to Pay $650K+

Manoj Prasad

Famous appropriation artist Richard Prince has agreed to pay photographers Donald Graham and Eric McNatt over $650,000 to end a long-running copyright conflict. The case was mostly about how Prince used their Instagram photos in his “New Portraits” show.

Prince agreed to pay Graham and McNatt at least $200,000 and $450,000, respectively, in two New York court cases filed Thursday. This is because he broke their copyrights. Besides that, he agreed to pay an extra $250,000 for costs linked to the lawsuits.

These settlements end two federal cases that were going to court in the next few months. A lot of people in the art world were paying close attention to the lawsuits, wondering if the courts would support Prince’s controversial ways of taking other people’s work as legal fair use.

A lot of people have said bad things about Prince over the years for using other people’s pictures without permission in his modernist art. The 69-year-old guy has fiercely defended his right to free speech, though, and has refused to give in.

The settled lawsuits centered around Prince’s 2014-2015 “New Portraits” exhibition featuring enlargements of Instagram photos with his own comments painted below them.

Two of the highlighted works incorporated photos by Graham and McNatt without permission:

  • “Portrait of Rastajay92” used Graham’s photo “Rastafarian Smoking a Joint”
  • “Portrait of Kim Gordon” featured McNatt’s portrait of the indie musician “Kim Gordon 1”

Upon seeing his work displayed, McNatt took legal action accusing Prince of copyright infringement. Graham soon followed with a similar lawsuit.

Despite facing intense scrutiny, Prince held firm that his use of the images should be protected as fair use. But after eight years of contentious and no doubt costly litigation, he opted to settle on “favorable terms,” according to his studio manager.

Settlement Shows Limitations of Fair Use Defense

The question of fair use is very important for imitation artists like Prince who rely on copying existing images. Under this legal theory, there are times when it is okay to use copyrighted information without a license.

Based on the settled lawsuits, it seems like Prince wasn’t sure if his use of the Instagram shots would be considered fair use in the end. By agreeing to pay a lot of money in damages, he dodged more court cases that could have led to even harsher punishments.

It is clear from these two decisions that even though appropriation methods are popular in postmodern art, they are still limited by copyright laws. It is against the law for anyone, even famous artists, to use other people’s work without permission or payment.

David Marriott, the lawyers for Graham and McNatt, said that the cases show that “There is not a fair use exception to copyright law that applies to the famous and another that applies to everyone else.”

Even though digital technology has made copying easier than ever, that doesn’t mean that people can steal anything in the name of art. This lawsuit shows that copyright rights still help creators stop wrongdoing, even if the person doing it is famous.

Prince has agreed not to use the protected shots of Graham and McNatt again. But because he is an outspoken and famous appropriator, he will probably keep pushing the limits of creative reuse in future works. But the recent settlements show that approach can come with very real legal risks.

SOURCES: New York Times
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