Copyright protects original works, as well as, those that derive therefrom. The “owner of a copyright …has the exclusive rights to …prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work.” 17 U.S.C. §106(2). A more recent provision gives authors “the right …to prevent any intentional distortion, multilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.” §106A(a)(3)(A).
My genuine enjoyment of the excellent exhibition, Andy Warhol/ Supernova: Stars, Deaths and Disasters, 1962-1964, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, was not lessened by my familiarity with these parts of the copyright laws. Warhol offers his unique and artistic vision of other people’s photographs. The provenance of his creations is with another person, artists with whom Warhol did not collaborate or share his profits. As I understand his technique, Warhol copied a photo from the news or from Hollywood, then he transferred that to a silkscreen, and he added color and arrangement. The resulting prints are considered the art works of Warhol. But, didn’t he take the work of another; did Warhol not appropriate the creation of another artist, a photographer?
Critics and commentators on art would agree that there never will be another body of work like that in the exhibit Andy Warhol …1962-1964. Their reasons for that shared conclusion may vary. My reasoning is that copyright laws would preclude Warhol from taking a copyrighted picture, such as he did of “Silver Liz” or Marilyn or Troy or “Race Riot,” and using that to make a derivative work. If he appropriated a picture from a movie poster or celebrity photo, or from the newspaper, and reprinted it, he would be a copyright infringer subject to treble damages. That Supernova of the Sixties has burned out.