LAUNCHPROJECTS - On Friday, March 18 2011, U.S. District Court judge Deborah A. Batts ruled that Richard Prince infringed upon the copyright of photographer Patrick Cariou when he appropriated 41 photographs from Cariou's book of photographs of Rastafarians in Jamaica titled Yes Rasta (PowerHouse Books, 2000). Prince altered these images for the exhibition Canal Zone at Gagosian Gallery in New York City.
Judge Batts rejected Prince’s argument that the images were appropriated for “higher artistic use,” noted that allowing copyright to be infringed solely on this claim would in practical terms eliminate copyright protection altogether. The court further found that Prince's motive in copying Cariou's photographs was primarily commercial, citing the fulsome proceeds from the exhibition, described in court documents: Prince made 29 "Canal Zone" artworks, with all but one including imagery from Yes Rasta. Gagosian sold eight of the works for a total of $10,480,000, with the gallery taking 40 percent of the proceeds. Seven more "Canal Zone" paintings were exchanged for unspecified artworks, valued between $6,000,000 and $8,000,000. Almost $7,000 worth of catalogues were sold.
Batts further ruled that Prince showed "bad faith" when he appropriated the images without attempting to license them properly and also found Gagosian Gallery liable for Prince's infringements, on the grounds that the gallery should have ensured that Prince had the rights to the material he used before the gallery offered the items for sale. Prince and Gagosian were ordered to cease exhibiting and promoting the series, and in an intriguing addition ordered that collectors of any "Canal Zone" paintings are not lawfully allowed to display the pieces they purchased. What a bizarre position for a collector to be in – surely there will be backlash for that judgment.
Charlie Finch of Artnet wrote a fantastic and ironic piece addressing Cariou's search for justice, Prince's effortless (lazy?) successes, and how Finch imagines this ruling to play out (in Prince's favor, of course):
“Having a judge as an interpreter of the meaning of art remains Kafkaesque: we can trot out the entire oeuvre of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and a thousand other artists as violators of Judge Batts' standard. But what of photographer Cariou? Is he not an artist, as well? There is undeniable schadenfreude in seeing Prince suffer, notably when his "Canal Zone" show was one of his laziest (but wasn't that the point?) and a best seller at high retail price points. Indeed, Judge Batts decreed that, absent a stay for an appeal from the defendants, Prince's work from the series and the tools used to make it should be obliterated in some way in the next 10 days, with those paintings already sold forbidden from being (literally) hung on the walls. Presumably, Cariou will have to go after their owners specifically.
Rough justice might demand that Cariou himself do the destruction and that Prince photograph the process and produce a new, very ironic series that would sell for tens of millions apiece. But this proposal enters a metaphysical plain of justice and recompense apparently beyond the scope of the law.”