Fair Use fetches artist millions

A controversial American artist has sold prints of people’s Instagram photos at an arts festival in New York, with some reportedly selling for a whopping US$90,000.

One of Prince's original works. Source: Richard Prince/Instagram

One of Prince’s original works. Source: Richard Prince/Instagram

Many are familiar with the name Richard Prince – the man notorious for appropriating photographers work, bypassing US copyright law, and turning over a hefty profit.

In his New Portraits project, Prince has scrolled and searched through Instagram looking for something that clicks – typically portraits of scantily dressed woman making suggestive poses; or celebrities.

He captures a screen shot of the image and prints it onto a 48×65-inch canvas. At first glance it screams blatant copyright infringement, but if it went to court there’s a strong chance they’d rule in Prince’s favour, and here’s why.

Before taking the screenshot, Prince writes a comment on the Instagram photo. For example, a self-portrait Instagram shot of a girl sticking her tongue out, Richardprince4 commented ‘T-Rex’ and ‘Now I know’. Sometimes he doesn’t even leave a comment, but rather a string of random emojis.

The screenshot captures the whole image as well as comments, but Prince simply edits out the original caption left by the Instagram user and places his comment up top. And that is how you bypass US copyright law. Well – that’s not entirely true – but few would dare enter the legal arena with Prince.

Back in 2011, Prince was taken to court by photographer Patrick Cariou. Cariou had spent years photographing Rastafarian culture in Jamaica, earning him roughly US$8000. Prince then took these images from a book and painted shapes, masks, or guitars on Cariou’s portraits of Rastafarians, earning over US$10 million. Cariou won the case, but Prince counter-sued under the grounds that the work was ‘transformative’ and won. The two made an out-of-court settlement last year for an undisclosed amount – a satisfactory result for Cariou.

Prince said

According to the US courts, Prince provided a ‘new expression, meaning or message’ to 25 of the 30 images shot by Cariou. Prince later said in an interview that ‘I like the way things look; that’s all my decisions are about—if it looks good, it is good’. Source: Nathaniel Paluga/Wikipedia

‘Fair Use’ is the defence that aids Prince to narrowly avoid copyright infringement. While Fair Use isn’t a currently a defence in Australian copyright law, the Federal Government, under the recommendation of an ALRC inquiry, will soon decide whether or not to introduce it.

New Portraits debuted late last year at the Gasogian Gallery in New York City.

The gallery, which has featured Prince’s work before but this time hosted the exhibition in a private VIP section, said this about Prince:

‘Mining images from mass media, advertising and entertainment since the late seventies, Prince has redefined the concepts of authorship, ownership, and aura. Applying his understanding of the complex transactions of representation to the making of art, he evolved a unique signature filled with echoes of other signatures yet that is unquestionably his own.’

Clearly they are fans or friends of Prince – and while it’s not hard to find many detractors of the 65-year old artist, he also has a strong following in the art world.

‘We could even say Prince invented our ability to notice some of the downmarket visual tropes that he’s looked for — motorcycle and muscle-car magazines, biker chicks,’ New York writer, Jerry Saltz wrote. ‘Now he’s turned to the ways people present themselves and their social groups to the world. Although none of the images are “his,” some of the portraits are people he knows.’

But few of them would be aware their Instagram photo is hanging in a credible art gallery with a price tag in the tens of thousands.

Doe Deere is one of these Instagram users. Despite the portrait being hung as early as September last year, she only found out about it when her portrait was hung at the Frieze Art Fair and wrote this a week ago.

‘Yes, my portrait is currently displayed at the Frieze Gallery in NYC. Yes, it’s just a screenshot (not a painting). No, I did not give my permission and yes, the controversial artist Richard Prince put it up anyway. It’s already sold ($90K I’ve been told) during the VIP preview. No, I’m not gonna go after him. And nope, I have no idea who ended up with it!”


Source: Pidgin Doll/Facebook

Prince has said that copyright has never interested him and feels that photographers claiming copyright infringement against him are simply censoring art (and slowing his cashflow!).

Some view Prince’s ‘re-photography’ similar to what Andy Warhol did with appropriating the works of other. But the vast majority aren’t so kind.But what is certain is that Prince doesn’t care, and has found financial success and fame with his… style of art.

One thought on “Fair Use fetches artist millions

  1. Australian photographer Peter Coulson was another of those finding his work used without permission, credit nor payment.
    Worth adding that the images were not altered at all (just ruined by large print reproduction from the Instagram web images).
    One result was that the Gallery involved now has one thousand (of a total 1.2 thousand) One Star of Five ratings, some commented reviews.
    A protest at least.
    The Suicide Girls website responded to the unauthorised use of their site image by making available prints for $90 instead of $90,000.

Comments are closed.

Recent Related Posts