Less Hope For Shepard Fairey in Obama Hope Poster Case?

By Dave Rein

If the street artist, Shepard Fairey, initially thought the copyright litigation over the Obama Hope poster would be a good-natured pillow fight with the Associated Press, he probably knew that it was going to get ugly once it came to light that he was less than truthful to the court in representing which photograph he used to create the Hope poster.

Mr. Fairey sued the AP last year asking the court to declare that the Hope poster does not infringe any of the AP's rights.  The AP countersued for copyright infringement and others have joined or been brought in as well.  It is now getting uglier for Mr. Fairey.  An earlier post describes Mr. Fairey's confession, but the saga continues. The court has shown that it is receptive to allowing discovery not just on which photograph Mr. Fairey actually used, but also on making him name names.

Specifically, Judge Alvin Hellerstein ruled on April 5, 2010 that Mr. Fairey must disclose who was involved in destroying documents in an effort to hide how the Hope poster was actually created:  "Plaintiffs shall disclose the identities of those who did the deletion and destruction and of those who knew about such deletion and destruction."  Mr. Fairey will have to disclose who performed the destruction, who supervised it and who knew about the destruction.   

The court's April 5th order itself may not elicit much excitement, but it raises several questions:  why did the court agree to allow discovery on the destruction of documents?  Although documents bearing on the creation of the Hope poster would be relevant, Mr. Fairey has already admitted that he used the photograph that the AP believed he used.  Does the discovery go to potential sanctions against Mr. Fairey and others who assisted in the destruction of documents?  If so, does the court intend to impose sanctions on top of the related criminal investigation?  Is such discovery relevant to undercut Mr. Fairey's fair use defense?  Neither the court's order nor the joint letter that the parties submitted to the court address the relevancy of the discovery.  

Regardless, the potential that others may have helped destroy documents on Mr. Fairey's behalf means that we may have more twists and turns to come in this case.

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.