Case NameDavid Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association and Donald E. Wildmon 
Citation: 745 F. Supp. 130 (S.D.N.Y. 1990) 
TopicsPublic Funding; Copyright & Fair Use; Modification and Destruction of Artists' Works

In David Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association, Wojnarowicz, a professional multimedia artist whose work explores the devastation wrought upon the homosexual community by the AIDS epidemic, sued to enjoin the publication of a pamphlet by the American Family Association (AFA). The AFA pamphlet condemned the NEA for funding Wojnarowicz’s works. Without Wojnarowicz’s authorization, the AFA included in its pamphlet certain images of Wojnarowicz’s lifted from his works and taken out of context, the majority of which depicted explicit sexual acts. This pamphlet spoke out against funding by the NEA of exhibits that include art works like those of Wojnarowicz and identified Wojnarowicz as the creator of the works as shown in the pamphlet.

The Court issued an injunction against the AFA, conceding Wojnarowicz’s claim that the AFA’s publication of specific images taken out of the context violated his rights under the New York Artists’ Authorship Rights Act. This Act expressly protects an artist from the attribution of his or her authorship of his or her work that has been altered from its original form if such alteration would result in injury to his or her reputation. However, while the Court granted Wojnarowicz’s claim for violation of this statute, they nevertheless dismissed his claim for copyright infringement on the grounds that federal copyright law is significantly different from the New York Artists’ Authorship Rights Act. Whereas the state act seeks to protect unfair injury to an artist’s reputation, the fair use provision of the Federal Copyright Act specifically permits use of an author’s work for purposes of commenting and criticizing it.

Of legal significance, this case clearly establishes that federal copyright law does not, as the defendants argued, preempt claims under the New York Artists’ Authorship Rights Act. Whereas the state act endeavors to protect an artist’s reputation by prohibiting attribution to him of altered works of art, federal copyright law seeks to regulate unfair reproduction of an unaltered original. Notably, even though Wojnarowicz prevailed under the New York Artists’ Authorship Rights Act, the Court awarded him a mere dollar in damages.

These materials are not intended, and should not be used, as legal advice. They necessarily contain generalizations that are not applicable in all jurisdictions or circumstances. Moreover, court decisions may be superseded by subsequent rulings, and may be subject to alternative interpretations. Corrections, clarification, and additions are welcome here.