A U.S. Court of Appeals judge has ruled that the majority of works in Richard Prince’s Canal Zone series, which appropriated photographs of Rastafarians by Patrick Cariou, are “transformative,” and therefore not an infringement on the copyrights for the original photographs. The decision overturns a 2011 Disctrict Court ruling, which had ordered that 21 of the 30 works which had not yet been sold be turned over to Cariou to destroy.
Based the ruling in the original case, Prince’s appeal signals a major victory for artists utilizing appropriation techniques worldwide. In the original case from 2011, Judge Deborah A. Batts had stated in her decision that new, appropriated works “in some way comment on, relate to the historical context of, or critically refer back to the original work.” It was this language, which forced appropriated material into a much narrower space of use, was the target of a sizable portion of the arguments in the case, and which was eventually overturned as incorrect.
The works from Canal Zone “have a different character” and “employ new aesthetics with creative and communicative results distinct form Cariou’s”, Judge B.D. Parker wrote in the court’s decision. “Where Cariou’s serene and deliberately composed portraits and landscape photographs depict the natural beauty of the Rastafarians and their surrounding environs, Prince’s crude and jarring works, on the other hand, are hectic and provocative.”
While most of Prince’s series was found to fall under “fair use” practice, 5 of his works were ruled as requiring a new ruling from the district court, a decision which was questioned by Cariou’s lawyer, Dan Brooks. “To me it’s a missed opportunity to really bring some clarity to this issue,” he said. “How do you decide whether something is transformative or just not quite transformative enough?”