Friday, February 20, 2009

What do you think on the whole Shepard Fairey question? Some of you are now pondering. Others are saying "Who?"

Shepard Fairey is a contemporary street artist who was most well known for his Obey Giant campaign, but is now most famous for his iconic Obama poster.

When I ask what you think on the whole Shepard Fairey question, what I am referring to is that he's been in the news recently for legal wrangling over copyright issue for using a portion of a journalist's photograph to create the Obama poster.

Here is a humorous but pretty good summation of the issue:

It's sort of a Button, Button, Who's Got the Button? circle of confusion, yes? But it's one that all artists - writers, visual artists, musicians... have thought about at one point or another. How much of our work do we own? How much do we share, combine, merge, adapt, reflect, borrow or unconsciously reuse of other's work when we create our own? Look at the popular "boy meets girl/girl and boy fight over something important while being sexually attracted to each other/boy and girl overcome important issue to find out true love conquers all/boy and girl end up together". Does someone own that story? Because if someone owns it, then there's a whole TON of people copying his/her idea! Copywrite? There's as many answers as there are people asking them. And there are probably many different questions to ask as a starting point.

I think "intent" is a key factor. Beyond that, I don't really know. My gut tells me how I feel on an individual basis. My gut might or might not agree with whatever the legal answer would be, although I'm certain that even a legal answer is difficult to pin down.

What do I think in this particular case? I think the nature of Fairey's work and intent wasn't to steal anyone elses work. Nor do I think that the poster damages the photographer's use of his photograph. If anything, it makes it more valuable, pulls it from the anonymity of an enormous slush pile of Obama images. Also, I think (although I'm not certain on this) I heard that Fairey gave the use of the image to the Obama campaign without direct compensation.

As a photographer I would be extremely upset if one of my photographs were stolen and used by someone without my consent, even for something as innocuous as a private blog banner or other "networking" or "commercial" work. If asked, I might readily allow the use, but I'd be pissed if someone used my work without asking me first. If someone stuck it up on their computer monitor as a personal wallpaper image - well, that seems to me just a flattering appreciation. If they liked looking at one of my images enough to make it more accessible for their own viewing pleasure, that's fine. Ideally they'd let me know, just because it would tickle me. I usually ask others for such benign use of their images. Not always. It depends on whether or not I can contact them easily. And I would never use their work in a way that would go past my own appreciation of just looking at it. But, I guess even that could be construed as "use" - if I didn't download an image, could they have benefited from me offering to buy the download? You see, it gets pretty confusing.

If it was my work used in the way the Obama photo was used, even if it was my own work I'd question whether the new art was still my work. Was the photo used as a simple way of creating a recognizable face? So many images of Obama exist that it would be near impossible not to find dozens of almost identical photos of him from almost any view. Say you wanted to make a painting of the Statue of Liberty. If you used my photo as a starting point to paint it, is that gonna matter to me? I mean, you can go to the Statue of Liberty yourself, stand on the same spot I stood, paint your photo from real life, or snap your own photo and use that. It's still gonna be your painting. In fact I've often seen photos that were taken from such a similar point of view as photos of my own that they've caused me to do a "Is that MY photo!?" double take upon seeing them.

Now, if I did something incredibly unusual and recognizably unique, and you borrowed that, maybe the gray area gets bigger. But it would have to be almost an exact replica of my work, otherwise it would end up being more a parody of my work than an attempt to steal it, which would only increase the value of my own original. Which is happening to Shepard Fairey's poster at an almost exponential rate of reproduction. What, you mean you haven't Obamicon'ed yourself yet?

So, there you go, no definite answer from e. No what do YOU think of the whole Shepard Fairey thing?

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