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Sid Vicious at the Center of Copyright Suit Against Artist Richard Prince

Sid Vicious, a founding member of the Sex Pistols who since his death has become as remembered for being photographed as he is for anything he played, is at the center of a new lawsuit against contemporary artist Richard Prince. 

The suit, filed in California by photographer Dennis Morris against Prince, the Gagosian Gallery and 10 unknown persons who helped with the creation of Prince's work, accuses Prince and Gagosian of "causing significant advertising injury" to Morris and seeks damages and any profits that came from the use and sale of his work.

At issue are several photos Morris took of Vicious that Prince incorporated and/or appropriated into two of his works. The first is a painting from Prince's Covering Pollack series, in which a collage of photos were painted over reprinted images of Jackson Pollack. The second, an untitled piece from Prince's 1999 Publicity series that featured Barbra Streisand, Prince, Sid Vicious and Sylvester Stallone.

The case will inevitably center around the legal principle of fair use, which allows for the use of copyrighted works under certain conditions. Fair use requires that a piece refer back to the original piece but furthers it artistically, or "adds value." Fair use is a nebulous thing to litigate and, where fine art is concerned, has little in the way of a well-worn path.

Multiple requests for comment from Gagosian went unreturned.

As New York art critic Jerry Saltz wrote in his analysis of Prince's now-infamous "New Portraits" series, in which the artist printed out iPhone-originated screenshots of Instagram posts: "In my way of thinking, too many artists are too wed to woefully outmoded copyright notions – laws that go against them in almost every case." That's a fair, even commendable, statement for an art critic (and an artist), not so much for a judge. 

It is not the first time Prince has been sued over his work. In 2014, as The Guardian reported, he settled a case brought by a photographer after using the other artist's work, from a book called Yes, Rasta, in his own "Canal Zone" series. Earlier this year Prince was sued over a different Rastafarian-related image that he used in his "New Portraits" series. 

More often than not, litigation hinges as much on available resources as it does on the letter of the law — and Prince, estimated by New York Observer in 2014 to be worth $30 million or more, has plenty. As does Gagosian, one of the most successful gallerists in the world.

That said, Prince is not angry when others play his game…