A Stunning Confession Potentially Destroys Fairey's Fair Use Defense

By Dave Rein

Source of Poster:  Stephen Fairey; Source of Photograph:  Mannie GarciaDespite depictions in TV shows and the movies, most court cases do not involve dramatic confessions, cover ups and Presidential politics.  Of course, most court cases don't involve Stephen Fairey.  From pasting the Obey Giant (now his Twitter name) and other "Obey" posters on public property (much to the ire of city officials around the country) to talking smack with the Associated Press over the Presidential candidate Obama Hope poster, he seems to seek and thrive on controversey.

But the controversey with the AP over the Obama Hope poster may have seriously backfired on Fairey.  On February 9, 2009, Fairey filed a Complaint in the Southern District of New York saying that his use of a photograph claimed by the AP fell within the fair use defense and therefore, he owed the AP nothing for using the photograph to create the Obama poster.  One former blogger on this site thought that if Fairey's inspiration for the poster did come from the picture of Obama and George Clooney at a press conference as Fairey claimed, then Fairey might succeed.  It is unlikely that we will find out if he was right. 

On October 16, 2009, Fairey confessed that he used a different picture from the same press conference, one that more closely resembles the Obama poster.  A number of bloggers including Tom GralishPhoto District News and others had suspected as much, but Fairey had denied their claims until now.

An AP article appearing in the New York Times could barely conceal its delight of the confession and the news that Fairey's legal defense team from the Stanford Fair Use Project intend to withdrawal their representation because Fairey lied to them and tried to cover it all up. 

Fairey can likely afford to hire other legal counsel, but the legal arguments for his new defense team just got a lot more difficult.  One of the four fair use factors analyzes the amount of copyrighted work taken.  When the Obama Hope poster is compared to the picture that Fairey now confesses to using, this prong may now weigh against him where it may have helped in in the other picture.  

But beyond the simple analysis of the factors, it should be remembered that the fair use defense is an equitable rule.  Fairey's confessed dishonesty undercuts his ability to ask for equity, i.e. fairness.  In other cases, the courts have not looked kindly on those accursed of infringing a work who denied that he or she used the accuser's work and then later tried to invoke the fair use defense.  Further, should this case go to trial, the AP will likely be able to tell the jury that Fairey initially lied about the picture and that he lied because he thought that he would lose if the actual photograph was known.  Much of the jury sympathy that Fairey might have had has likely been lost.

While Fairey's case against the AP still raises interesting questions such as whether the AP or Mannie Garcia, the photographer, own the copyright to the photograph, it now looks like a much anticipated case analyzing the fair use defense will disappoint many.

Would You Like An OBAMA Cigar? We Think The USPTO Will Say: "No You Can't."

By Dave Rein

Co-author:  Branden Gregory (more on him later)

We admit that we love trademarks enough that we can pass time away with our feet propped up while running random searches on the USPTO's database of trademark applications.  Sure this time might be better spent working off a few more stubborn winter pounds, but that might have meant missing a few gems. 

During Barack Obama's campaign for President, there were a few applications to register various OBAMA related trademarks which were presumably filed by his supporters and his opponents.  Later, more commercial-oriented applications appeared:  OBAMA bottled water, cigars and other products that we're sure we can't live without.  The applications just keep coming.  And not just here in the U.S.  The IPKAT reported that trademark applications in Europe to register OBAMA marks have appeared in several European countries.

But, did any of these applicants really think the USPTO would register these marks? The USPTO is not going to allow registration of President Obama's name without the President's consent.  Not only will the President politely decline to consent to Obama soft drinks, but we are also willing to bet it will be nearly impossible to get past Obama's personal secretary, Katie Johnson.  As for these marks, in the words of Heid Klum, the host of Project Runway, "You are out!"

As for those marks which "merely" propose using "OBAMA" as a term of the mark, they are not likely to get much further as the USPTO will probably construe the marks as consisting primarily of a surname.  In the eyes of the USPTO, this is a "no no."  We were surprised to learn that the Obama name is relatively unusual in the U.S., but it won't be perceived as unusual any longer.  We can't come up with another meaning for "OBAMA" other than as a surname:  it does not signify a geographical area, have a secondary meaning or translate from Swahili into something other than the President's surname (we'll admit to being a bit rusty on our Swahili).

So why did attorneys agree to file these applications?  It strikes one of us as fairly straight forward that the USPTO won't register the marks, but were we missing something?  Brief interlude . . . one of the best things about summer is that one of us gets to hang around some fantastic summer associates including Branden Gregory who graciously agreed to hit the books and find a way to convince the USPTO to register these marks.   Although fully inspired with the "Yes We Can" slogan, his conclusion was that we are not going to be seeing Obama energy drinks anytime soon. 

Then what was the good-faith basis for filing the applications to register Obama marks?  Did the attorneys tell their clients that perhaps they might get lucky and catch one of the trademark attorneys in a mischievous mood?  That wouldn't be kosher so that can't be it.  Anyone have any thoughts?  Anyone?  Bueller?  . . . Bueller?