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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Shepard Fairey: Hero or Hypocrite?

[NOTE: Update at bottom of the post.]

This week, the Pittsburgh City Paper reports that now-legendary street artist Shepard Fairey -- he of the Obama "HOPE" poster -- is suing local graphic designer Larkin Werner over the use of the word "OBEY" in association with Werner's own indie art project, Steelerbaby.

In a nutshell, one of many designs for Steelerbaby merchandise says, simply, "Obey Steelerbaby." Fairey's lawyers claim the use of the word "Obey" is trademark infringement, because Fairey himself first became famous for a series of street art featuring an image of Andre the Giant (remember him?) and the word "OBEY" -- which he then evidently trademarked at some point over the past 20 years.

The ironies, hypocrisies and questions raised by this story are numerous, including:

* Fairey was originally sued by the WWF (now WWE) for his copyright-infringing Andre the Giant images in the first place. But who really "owns" an image? And if that image is of a person, doesn't that person have the final say over where his or her image is allowed to be used?

* Fairey has been under fire from the Associated Press, who claim his Obama "HOPE" image is a blatant infringement on a photo they own the rights to. Fairey's response is that the "HOPE" poster is a derivative work, which means he has the right to use the original image as a basis for something new. If that's his defense against the AP, why wouldn't it also apply in Steelerbaby's case?

* Larkin has yet to be sued by the Pittsburgh Steelers (or the Kewpie doll company), either of which would probably have a much better reason for doing so than a corporation founded by a fellow "street artist."

* Can you realistically trademark a commonly used word?

* At what point does an artist cease to be "street" and transition to becoming "corporate"? (Is it when your work is installed in The National Portrait Gallery? Or is it when you countersue the AP?)

* Am I the only person who thinks now is a great time to push for wider adoption of Creative Commons licenses, as opposed to copyrights and trademarks?

What do YOU think? (Because we already know what Gawker and Steelerbaby think...)

UPDATE (March 23, 2009): It seems Shepard Fairey dropped the lawsuit against Steelerbaby.

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  • Visit Shepard's website and you'll see that OBEY is his brand. I think his complaint about trademark infringement has some validity. However, it seriously reduces his cred as an artist and "quality dissent" manufacturer to go around suing people for petty things. Consider though, that the purpose of trademark law isn't so much to protect intellectual property as it is to protect consumers by avoiding confusion in the marketplace.

    By Anonymous Forest Royse, at 11:29 AM  

  • I'm trademarking the word "the".

    You owe me $40,000.

    By Anonymous rachel, at 12:19 PM  

  • WWE is well known for trademarking just about everything they can get their hands on when it comes to their talent.

    It doesn't surprise me that they went after him. To be fair though, they only went after him for the use of the name, not the face.

    By Anonymous Will, at 1:10 PM  

  • In the world of law, "Obey Steelerbaby" which came from a phase he says on the website, is a different phrase than just the word "Obey." Yet Fairey's lawyers go after the little guy for everything. He claims to be fighting the corporate world, yet that is all he is.

    By Blogger PBW, at 1:19 PM  

  • But when is ABC going to sue you for stealing their headline?

    By Blogger John R. Carman, at 1:14 AM  

  • I love the 24 hours of Lemons team, The Carpet Pissers "Abide" graphic, gotta love The Big Lebowski:

    By Blogger SexCpotatoes, at 6:47 AM  

  • Gawker snatched that story from the Myartspace Blog. They posted about it on the same day hours after MB did. The Gawker author even used some of the same word structure as the MB post. I expected better from Gawker.

    There is fair use under trademark law. Shepard used the Sherwin-Williams paint logo which is trademarked.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:05 PM  

  • I dont know why, but this doll reminded me of the "Garbage Pail Kids" cards, I think I still have some of those weird but cool cards.

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    By Anonymous Tod, at 5:51 AM  

  • This is especially hilarious considering shepherd copied OBEY from an old 80's move called THEY LIVE. The copier doesn't want to be copied? what a hipocrit

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:48 AM  

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