Obama “Hope” Image vs. One Lost Shephard

Another day, another Fair Use issue in the headlines. After working with my graduate students over the past six months I’m left with the feeling that most of them approach the subject of copyright as something that the big media companies hold over their heads, preventing them from using the music that they want in their videos or images on their websites. It’s an eye-opening experience for them to realize that there are options for them to use, such as creative commons, where they can find quality media and stay well clear of the gray area that is copyright law. Good times. I cover copyright and Fair Use over two sessions every month and by the end everyone knows that Fair Use is not a right but can be used as a defense if/when one is sued for a copyright violation. Or course none of my students want to be anywhere near a court, having to defend themselves versus some scary media conglomerate.

Then the last week of February, as if I needed a textbook case on Fair Use, I stumbled across an NPR interview of the artist, Shephard Fairey, who was behind President Obama’s “Hope” poster that rose to iconic status during the election. Seems that the Associated Press was threatening to sue Fairey for the use of the photograph that he used to create his poster. Just before NPR ran the story Fairey decided to beat AP to the punch and sue AP claiming that his use of the photo was covered under Fair Use. To make things even more complicated, the photographer, Mannie Garcia, is suing AP claiming that he was a freelancer and not an AP employee when he shot the disputed photo and therefore he is entitled to compensation from this litigation. Let’s say it together: Fair Use is not a right but a defensible position. Again, Fair Use is not a right but a defensible position.

I asked photographer and TWiT contributer, Scott Bourne, his take on the case (via Twitter) and he said,

“I think the artist stole the photo and his fair use claim will end up costing him treble damages. All depends on whether AP owns pic.”

When NPR’s Terry Gross asked the photographer of the Obama image, Mannie Garcia, his take on Fairey using his photograph he said, “[It’s] crucial for people to understand, simply because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean that it’s free for the taking, and that just because you can take it, means that it belongs to you.”

A cursory survey of opinions online from the likes of Milton Glaser on BoingBoing, Mark Vallen on Art-for-Change, The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, and Chal Pivik on the Los Angeles METBlogs, seems to show that the more the pundit knows about the actual steps or changes to the photo that Fairey made to create the poster the more likely the writer will come down on the side of Fairey’s Fair Use claim. Finally, NPR did an excellent job covering all of the angles of the story, finishing up with a discussion with law professor Greg Lastowka on the case and Fair Use. Click the player below for the complete NPR recording.

Please go to the following link for the NPR interview: NPR: Fresh Air: Shepard Fairey: Inspiration Or Infringement?

Los Angeles Times Video: Hope: Shepard Fairey and Barack Obama

Postscript: Had my research on this story ended with the NPR piece I would have been left with a different image of Shepherd Fairey than the one I gained via a series of videos that were created long before Obama campaign, when Fairey’s main claim to fame was his “Andre the Giant: Obey!” world-wide sticker/poster/street art project. Fifteen-plus arrests later for “street art” activities and it’s little wonder that he’d be a media darling while at the same time being in trouble for taking someone’s else’s photograph and not thinking twice about using it to make the Obama: Hope image. When he says, “Icon” for the G4 series of the same name, implying his own status in the art/street culture world, I’m put off by the arrogance and willingness to play both sides of the media. When all of this plays out the title of his next video might be, “Shepherd Fairey: Oops.”

Obama photo: Mannie Garcia (AP)/Obama image: Shepherd Fairey, retrieved from http://www.boingboing.net/2009/02/09/milton-glaser-weighs.html on 04/09/2009

Shepard Fairey: Inspiration Or Infringement? NPR Fresh Air interview, retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101182453 on 02/27/2009

Hope: Shepard Fairey and Barack Obama – Los Angeles Time interview/video retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_EOzZ9iaJQ&NR=1 on 04/07/2009

ICONS: Shepard Fairey, YouTube video retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNv-9IOBZZo on 04/07/2009


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