False Hope?

One of the most prominent copyright/fair use cases over the last year has been artist Shepard Fairey‘s dispute with the Associated Press (AP) over his famous poster of now-President Obama during the 2008 Presidential Campaign. The poster, which featured a stylized portrait of Obama with the word “Hope” underneath, was supposedly based off of an AP photograph taken of Obama at a 2006 event organized by George Clooney on Darfur, which Fairey then modified to create the now-iconic HOPE poster. The AP claimed that because Fairey’s work for based off an AP photograph to which the AP owned the copyright, Fairey was required under copyright law to apply for permission for use of the photograph. Fairey consistently claimed that he did not profit from the poster, but instead used the proceeds to produce additional prints, and disputed the AP’s identification of the original photo as a closeup of Obama rather than a photo of both Obama and Clooney.

Fairey, who was then represented by Anthony Falzone, Executive Director of Stanford Law School’s Fair Use Project, claimed that his use of the photograph came under the “fair use” exception and thus permission was not required. Fair use hasn’t often been applied to photographs, so the issue seemed likely to become a fascinating test case, especially after Fairey filed for declaratory judgment against the AP in February 2009 seeking a determination that his use came under the doctrine of fair use.

The case was further complicated by the claims of the original photographer, Mannie Garcia, who was working under contract for the AP when he took the photograph; Garcia claimed that the copyright for the photo belonged to him, not to the AP. Garcia’s latest position in the legal skirmish is as a defendant, counterclaim plaintiff, and cross-claim plaintiff/defendant.

At the time, it seemed that Fairey had a chance of winning. Fair use disputes are resolved by a four-factor test; the four factors are:

  1. the purpose and character of the use
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market.

The first factor relates to the use of the original material; by cropping, colorizing, and reorienting Obama’s posture from the original photograph, as Fairey claimed he’d done, it’s probable that a court would have deemed Fairey’s use sufficiently transformative to satisfy that factor.

The second factor concerns the distinction between fiction and fact; since Fairey copied from something factual (a photograph from a news event) rather than something fictional (for example, a novel), it’s possible that he would have succeeded on this factor as well, since only fictional works can be copyrighted. However, the Supreme Court ruled in Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service, Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991), that only a “spark” of originality was required in order for something to come under copyright protection, it seems probable that the original photograph would have been protected by copyright. Fairey would thus have faced a tougher battle on the second factor compared to the first.

The third factor presents one of the most interesting elements of the case. The less someone uses of the original work, the better case they have for fair use. For example, if a musician copies only a few seconds from six minute song into a remix, she’ll have a stronger basis for fair use than if she uses five minutes. Since Fairey supposedly cropped out George Clooney from the original photograph, he had a fairly good position on this factor. As the LA Times noted, how often does George Clooney get cropped out of a photograph? The fourth and final factor also seemed to weigh in Fairey’s favor. Fairey’s poster did not impede the AP from selling the rights to the original photograph to newspapers and other media outlets, especially given that the photograph was over two years old by the time Fairey began selling prints of it.

Last month, the entire case took on a dramatic twist when it came to light that Fairey had lied about which photograph he’d used for the HOPE poster. Instead of using a photo of Clooney and Obama, Fairey admitted that he had used the photograph that the AP had always claimed he’d used (a closeup of Obama) and that he had deleted images and submitted false ones in connection with the lawsuit. As a result, Falzone and the Fair Use Project declared their intention to withdraw from the case, as they couldn’t ethically represent Fairey after his lies came to light. Falzone noted that he still believed in the merits of Fairey’s case; the AP, however, countered that Fairey’s admission undermined his fair use argument and that they would block the withdrawal of Falzone and the Fair Use Project. The Fair Use Project’s proposed replacements are Geoffrey Stewart, a partner at Jones Day, and William Fisher and John Palfrey of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Law and Society.

Crucially, Fairey’s admission impedes his claims under the third factor of fair use, as he did not modify the original photograph as much as he claimed and took a larger proportion of the original work. Still, Falzone’s support of Fairey’s claims even after exiting the case doesn’t seem naive; it’s conceivable that a court could still find fair use. But as many have noted, it’s hard to seek a defense that uses the word “fair” when you’ve lied about the case. The case is still going forward, but Fairey’s position is far weaker than it was a few weeks ago, though the LA Times ran an editorial this week that supports Fairey’s claims on the merits. But what could have been a fascinating test case for the status of fair use in copyright law has been muddled as a result of Fairey’s deception, and it remains unclear what this could mean for other artists working in similar ways.

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  1. Shepard Fairey Settles with Associated Press at The MTTLR Blog - [...] alleging that he had used without permission a photograph whose copyright was controlled by AP. As I described here …

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