The image of President Barack Obama is easily recognized by people from all around the world. One particular depiction however, has been stirring up some controversy.
Artist Shepard Fairey created an illustration of Obama based off a photo taken by Mannie Garcia, a photographer who freelances for the Associated Press. Fairey is now suing the AP after the AP made threats to seek credit and compensation for its use, citing copyright abuse. Making matters even more muddled, Garcia claims that he owns the photo , not the AP.
Such a case presents a number of questions. The most obvious question is how copyright law translates, especially in the age of the internet where photos and art are easily transferable and recyclable. The Fair Use Project at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School was established to "provide legal support to a range of projects designed to clarify, and extend, the boundaries of ‘fair use’ in order to enhance creative freedom" and will be representing Fairey. The legal intricacies of Fair Use in the U.S. are quite complicated and subjective ideas concerning consent (of creator) and intent (of user) also play a role.
It is important while examining this question to understand that there has often been a thin line between copyright and the arts. Charlie Parker, the famed Bebop saxophonist, used interpolation, which combines new and original melodies performed over pre-existing songs. This practice is still very common among jazz and even hip hop artists today. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has been quoted often in relation to originality: "Nothing is original. Steal from everywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows… Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent."
Richard Prince is considered one of the first appropriation artists. He is widely known (infamous?) for re-photographing photographs, which often led to lawsuits. Such works can be seen as a simultaneous process of deconstruction and reconstruction. His photos and more importantly his process are provocative and groundbreaking in that they question traditional interpretation, traditional boundaries and some would say, even our sense of reality. But in breaking down these barriers, one also has to ask themselves what are the original photographers’ rights? Can shared credit and royalty exist without lawsuits?
Because of the internet, images and flow freely and it is often difficult to distinguish the true originator or owner. In this new age of access, culture is changing at an alarming pace, often seen as fleeting, but images make an impact. These iconic photos (and even illustrations like Fairey’s) grow in popularity because everyday people find comfort in being able to look them up and if they choose, make them their own individual versions. Certain images become ingrained in our individual and collective psyche and become a part of our culture; therefore, don’t we own a part of that, too?