We received this email this morning from Shepard Fairey’s Obey camp. I imagine most of our EDM culture readers know Shepard Fairey and that he’s the guy behind the 2008 “hope” campaign poster of Barack Obama. Remember that nasty copyright entanglement he got into with the Associated Press over it? Well, he was sentenced in federal court in Manhattan on Friday to two years of probation and fined $25,000 for tampering with evidence in the case. Prosecutors actually wanted to send guy to jail over it, which sounds way over the top. Don’t get me wrong, tampering with evidence is never a good thing, but jail, really? That's like sending a DJ to jain for making a bootleg house music record or something like that. I’d get it if guy were up on murder charges or something a bit more serious. If I were a betting man, I’d say the prosecutors on this case are republicans.
I believe in intellectual property rights and the rights of photographers, but I also believe artists need latitude to create…just as news organizations need to use exception to copyright in order to report the news. -Shepard Fairey
“I accept full responsibility for violating the Court’s trust by tampering with evidence during my civil case with the Associated Press, which, after my admitting to engaging in this conduct, led to this criminal case by the Southern District of New York. I accept the Judge’s sentence and look forward to finally putting this episode behind me. My wrong-headed actions, born out of a moment of fear and embarrassment, have not only been financially and psychologically costly to myself and my family, but also helped to obscure what I was fighting for in the first place— the ability of artists everywhere to be inspired and freely create art without reprisal.
I entered into litigation with the AP because I believe in Fair Use and I wanted to protect the rights of all artists. The Obama HOPE poster was created and distributed with a belief in what Obama could do for this country and my hope that I could inspire others to thought and action. Making money was never a part of the equation. As funds came in, I used them to create more posters and stickers and make donations to the Obama campaign. Most of the remaining proceeds were given to causes I support and believe in from the ACLU to Feeding America.
I believed, and still believe, that I had a very strong Fair Use case, which I could have prevailed. There was no intent to deceive on my part at the outset. When I discovered that the photo I had referenced was indeed the one the AP argued it was and not the one I thought I had used, I was embarrassed and scared to admit they were right and I was wrong even though it would not have had a material bearing on my case. Not amending the record was a big mistake and short-sighted. My actions damaged my ability to proceed effectively with my case and allowed the AP to focus on my credibility. I regret my actions every day and those who know me well know it is out of character.
Throughout my artistic career I have seen art as a powerful tool of political speech and social commentary and I try to use my art to stimulate a constructive dialogue. I believe in intellectual property rights and the rights of photographers, but I also believe artists need latitude to create inspired by real world things, just as news organizations need to use exception to copyright in order to report the news. The ability for an artist to creatively and conceptually transform references from reality is essential to their artistic commentary on the realities of the world. If artists find that freedom curtailed, it is not just artists, but all of us, who will lose something critically important.
The damage to my own reputation is dwarfed by the regret I feel for clouding the issues of the Fair Use case. I let down artists and advocates for artist's rights by distracting from the core Fair Use discussion with my misdeeds. The decision today will, I hope, mark an ending to what, for me, has been a deeply regrettable chapter. But the larger principles at stake—Fair Use and Artists’ Freedom—are still in jeopardy, and I hope we will remain vigilant in depending on the Freedom of Expression.” -Shepard Fairey