Art Market

A U.S. judge struck down a French court’s $2.2-million ruling in a copyright dispute over Picasso photos.

Benjamin Sutton
Sep 13, 2019 3:39PM, via Courthouse News

A visitor at the Metropolitan Museum looks at a work by Pablo Picasso. Photo by Mister_Jack, via Flickr.

A decades-long legal battle over photographs of Pablo Picasso’s work may have finally come to an end following a U.S. judge’s fair use ruling. The lawsuit revolved around a set of photographs of Picasso’s work taken by the artist’s friend and Cahiers d'Art founder Christian Zervos between 1932 and 1970. The images were published in a 33-volume catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work, commonly referred to as the Zervos Catalogue. In 1979, Yves Sicre de Fontbrune, a former director at Cahiers d’Art, acquired the intellectual property rights to the Zervos Catalogue. In the 1990s, art dealer and publisher Alan Wofsy included some of Zervos’s photographs in a two-volume book on Picasso, sparking De Fontbrune’s copyright infringement lawsuit and a winding legal battle.

In 1996, a French court rejected De Fontbrune’s initial claim. But in 2001, the Paris Court of Appeal ruled that Wofsy’s actions did in fact constitute copyright infringement, ordered him to pay about $137,000, and prohibited him from further infringing activity under threat of a $1,700 fine per violation. Wofsy did not comply with the ruling, and 11 years later De Fontbrune went back to court and was awarded €2 million ($2.2 million); an award Wofsy then fought in court in California, where he lives. In 2015, De Fontbrune died, leaving his wife and three children to carry on his legal battle with Wofsy.

Finally, on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Edward Davila refused to enforce the French court’s order mandating Wofsy to pay $2.2 million, ruling that his publication of the Picasso images constituted fair use. He noted that Wofsy’s publication and the Zervos Catalogue “have distinctly separate markets and do not compete,” adding that Wofsy’s publication is protected by U.S. copyright law that promotes “criticism, teaching, scholarship, and research.”

Further Reading: Art Copyright, Explained

Benjamin Sutton
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019