us copyrights office


The very first photo was taken at the beginning of the 19th century. No one thought then how confusing and overwhelming can copyright be. Catching a given moment in a picture was considered something innovative, which allowed people to dream even bigger. However, with such a big innovation comes great responsibility. Let’s discuss the respect and fairness in regard to using the specific photographs that were shot by someone else.

Nowadays, in the age of technology, photographs became a mass product. We post millions of photos every day on the Internet. The easiness and accessibility of digital data not only helped the society explore the culture but also became a threat to the art itself. When one thinks about an infringement today, the very first thing that pops up in his mind is a simple term of ‘copy-pasting’. However, as the following examples will confirm, copyright is more complex than that. This article presents different court cases commenting upon different aspects of copyright.

Cariou vs Prince and the matter of “fair use” in the US

In 2000, a professional American photographer Patrick Cariou published a book of photographs titled Yes Rasta. The book consisted of various landscape and portrait photographs. Later on, in 2008, another artist, Richard Prince, decided to use several photographs from the aforementioned book. He altered them following his own design and incorporated them into a series of his own paintings. Paintings were available, displayed, and sold in one of new York’s biggest galleries. Patrick Cariou filed a lawsuit for copyright against Richard Prince, Gallery and its owner. He claimed an infringement on his rights. The defendants countered the lawsuit claiming ‘fair use’. He argued that the alteration of the photos was so significant that it constituted a change in meaning. Clever, right?

Does significant alteration change the meaning of the photo?

fair use


The judge in District Court ruled in favor of Patrick Cariou. The verdict stated that Richard Prince was not commenting upon the original photographs. Moreover, the changes were not significant enough in order to consider it as fair use. However, the case was appealed.

In 2013, the Second Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling. In conclusion, giving several reasons held that 25 out of 30 photos used by Prince were fair use. Firstly, the secondary user does not have to comment on the original works. Verdict claimed that providing a new message to the audience was transformative. Secondly, the court decided that the works of Patrick were indeed transformative as they had a different purpose from the originals. Furthermore, the court stressed that the crucial point is how the work is perceived, not what was the artist’s intention. Take a look at the whole verdict on Cariou vs. Prince case.

Original key message vs. new interpretation

The presented case started a long and justified discussion in the artistic community. The main problem brought up was the understanding of the intention. Secondly, the distinction in a form of deciding upon the meaning in regard to the original key message. As this case confirms, art’s beauty and curse are hidden in the interpretation of the work. If you are interested in the fair use doctrine, you may check out our article on the “fair use” of copyrighted materials.

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