Farewell to Shepard’s “Fairey Use” Movement

It’s no secret that we at Fast Company love an underdog. A little guy taking on a big guy? Bring on the popcorn.

shepard fairey - obama hope

It’s no secret that we at Fast Company love an underdog. A little guy taking on a big guy? Bring on the popcorn. And before this weekend’s events, we were rooting for artist Shepard Fairey’s fair use case against the Associated Press. But now, we’re left feeling lost, confused, and even a little hurt. What happened to our fair use hero? Well, he lied.


If you haven’t been following along, the AP claimed in January that Fairey used one of their images for his now-iconic “Hope and Progress” poster, featuring then-Sen. Barack Obama, and asked for credit and compensation for the altered photograph. Fairey sued the AP, claiming his work didn’t infringe on its copyrights because of “fair use.” The AP countersued, claiming Fairey “misappropriated” the photograph.

Fairey seemed to do everything right. He hired powerhouse lawyer Anthony Falzone, the executive director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford University. He was standing up for fair use rights and the recent “remix” trend. He was a hero for a new way of spreading content, the street artist’s answer to Girl Talk. Winning his case against the copyright-crazy Associated Press would be a huge coup for bloggers, artists, and musicians of the Internet age. But now …?

We aren’t really sure. The AP claimed Fairey used a close-up shot by AP photographer Mannie Garcia from a National Press Club event about Darfur in April of 2006. Fairey said that while he did use a photo from the event, it was not the one the AP claimed, but one with Obama sitting next to actor George Clooney, and that he cropped the photo and used it as a reference.

Now, months later, Fairey has come out saying the he lied–he did, in fact, use the photo the AP claimed all along. But that’s not all. After he was countersued in March, Fairey destroyed evidence and falsified documents to cover up the use of the photo. “In an attempt to conceal my mistake, I submitted false images and deleted other images,” Fairey said in a statement. “I sincerely apologize for my lapse in judgment, and I take full responsibility for my actions, which were mine alone.”

Clooney and obama

This doesn’t exactly change Fairey’s argument–he admitted all along that he used an AP photo, he just lied about which one. But his lie has come with huge consequences: Falzone, Fairey’s lawyer and Fair Use Project head, has pulled out. “There are lots of reasons that it becomes difficult or effectively impossible for a lawyer to continue to represent a client in this situation,” Falzone told The New York Times. “We still believe, as strongly as ever, in the underlying fair use and expression issues of this case,” he said, but clearly he doesn’t believe in Fairey enough to remain behind his cause. Ouch.

Fairey says he plans to continue his case with new representation (once he finds it), but he’ll be missing something he had before: public support. It’s not that all supporters thought Fairey was a great artist, but he was standing up for street art, remixing, and fair use, a small guy taking on a corporate beacon. (Yes, we realize the AP is a not-for-profit, but it’s huge and stuffy nonetheless.) And sure, Fairey is still all of that, but now he’s tainted. With his lies, his case has lost its underdog sparkle, leaving Fairey looking like a chump artist trying to get out of paying for a photo.


It’s unclear how large of an effect Fairey’s lies will have on the suit, but it destroys his credibility and leaves supporters feeling betrayed. The fair use fight will continue, but “Fairey Use?” We think it’s dead and gone.

[Via The New York Times]