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Shepard Fairey and the AP reach a settlement, but questions of artistic originality remain

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  January 13, 2011 04:13 PM

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Shepard Fairey's iconic poster of Barack Obama was perhaps the most recognizable image of the 2008 presidential campaign, showing a resolute-looking Obama in red-white-and blue and emblazoned with the slogan "hope."

But the poster also sparked a lengthy legal battle, which finally ended yesterday in a settlement between Fairey and the Associated Press, owner of the image on which the poster was closely based.

Fairey had initially denied using the copyrighted 2006 AP photo as the basis for his image, but was forced to admit in 2009 that he used the picture. After changing his story, the graffiti artist then claimed that he changed the work enough that he shouldn't have to pay the AP.

Under yesterday's settlement, Fairey will collaborate with AP photographers on a series of future works and will refrain from using AP photos in the future without permission. The two sides also reached an undisclosed financial settlement.

But while the settlement may end the legal cloud surrounding the "Hope" image, the larger question of whether Fairey's artistic method represents legitimate art or merely theft — a question probed by the Globe's Christopher Shea in 2009 — remains unanswered.

One Fairey skeptic, Globe editorial cartoonist Dan Wasserman, offered a scalding take-down of Fairey in 2009, especially Fairey's record of lifting the work of lesser-known artists without credit:

I understand that we live in a world of rampant sampling and remixing, but claiming to be hip or leftist is not an excuse for ripping off other creators. It's not even fundamentally a legal issue (though it may be that as well) — it's respect for other artists. And the argument that the art is "transformative," so no nod to the original is necessary, is a weak one.

Referencing well-known works that have become cultural touchstones is one thing, Wasserman says. But in Fairey's case he often appropriated little-known artists, or, in the case of Obama poster, the AP's Mannie Garcia — a well-regarded but hardly high-profile photographer. (Fairey does respect the rights of artists in some cases: as Wasserman points out, Fairey has been quick with the cease-and-desist letter to defend his own copyrights.)

And Wasserman scorned the idea that Fairey, now a well-compensated corporate adman with a Rolodex fat with lawyers, continues to claim the prerogatives of an underground artist:
[Fairey] inveighs against the depredations of consumer culture, but his design firm works on a "Want It!" campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue. He wants the street cred of a revolutionary artist extolling freedom fighters and quoting Noam Chomsky while doing "guerrilla" marketing campaigns for Netscape and Pepsi.

In this April 27, 2006 file photo, a poster of President Barack Obama, right, by artist Shepard Fairey is shown for comparison with this file photo of then-Sen. Barack Obama by Associated Press photographer Manny Garcia at the National Press Club in Washington.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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