Add another one to the annals of recent countercultural moments: Yesterday the Associated Press accused Shepard Fairey–the street artist who designed the most iconic user generated art to come out of the 2008 election–of copyright infringement. The creator of the “Hope” poster–that now sits regally in the National Portrait Gallery–has come under fire by the news organization for using its 2006 Obama photo as the canvas for the art-ified image, without buying rights to it.
I’m all for creators getting their cut (I am a journalist after all). And yes, Fairey probably should have been fair, and purchased the rights upfront. However, the fight the AP is now picking with Fairey is PR suicide: It makes the media organization look petty, superficial, and practically un-American (I mean, when was the last time we’ve had art rise to the top of culture as poetically as this?). Not to mention, the photo itself was nothing more than raw material without Fairey’s vision to elevate it to something more. Now that the piece has catapulted Fairey to celeb status, and the image has been reincarnated into hundreds of thousands of posters (some clocking in at over $500) and stickers, AP just looks like it wants to piggyback on cashing in.
Fairey’s no dummy. He’s hired Anothony Falzone, a lawyer and executive director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford University. Falzone is also the heir apparent to Lawrence Lessig, the famed Stanford copyright law professor and founder of Creative Commons, the movement that encourages creators to modify copyright terms in order to “increase the amount of creativity (cultural, educational, and scientific content) in “the commons”—the body of work that is available to the public for free and legal sharing, use, repurposing, and remixing.” It actually encourages building on someone else’s creative work.
All of this reminds me of when the record labels went on a suing rampage against Napster users. Yet another example of huge organizations exercising bully power while exhibiting their total tone deafness to culture. We’re well aware that news orgs are getting killed financially right now–but is this really the best way the AP can scrounge up a new revenue stream?