Thursday, February 5, 2009

Who Owns This Face?

Who deserves to profit from this iconic image? Photographer Mannie Garcia shot it at the National Press Club in 2006 of then junior Senator Barack Obama, for the Associated Press. Artist Shepard Fairey then used it last year for his ubiquitious campaign posters, which have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. Fairey acknowledges the source material, but argues that it's "fair use," and that he neither has to credit nor compensate Garcia or AP.

To further complicate the issue, Garcia's assignment was as a "temporary hire" -- neither freelancer nor staffer -- and he worked without an AP contract. Therefore he believes he solely owns the copyright to the image, but of course AP is also claiming ownership. It may be to Garcia's advantage to have AP in his corner when it comes to convincing Fairey to share profits and bestow a credit. (In this interview, Garcia says he wants recognition, but that financial gain is not his motive; he's planning to sell autographed original photo prints to raise money for charities.)

And so lawyers are hashing it out, trying to find an amicable resolution that benefits everyone. Intellectual property is a tricky business. The ability to "mash" video footage from multiple sources, and create derivative moving images, will inevitably entice videojournalists and fill courtrooms in the process. The safest solution? When in doubt, sign contracts, seek permission, give credit.

1 comment:

Lane said...

Hi Ken,

I have been following this story with some interest the past few days and have come across some sites that show how much of Fairey's work is taken directly from others and used without any attribution.

I own the Fairey poster and liked it, but have to admit, the day I heard him on NPR's Fresh Air telling Terry Gross that he didn't know who owned the image and had not obtained the rights to it, I felt a bit uncomfortable about owning the piece.

Here are a few links about where Fairey gets his base imagery from, and some very well thought out arguments around it:

http://www.art-for-a-change.com/Obey/index.htm

http://www.justseeds.org/blog/2007/12/a_response_to_obey_plagiarist_1.html

And a “Suggested “best practices” for using the graphic artwork of others” by Lincoln Cushing

http://www.docspopuli.org/articles/RecyclingArt.htm

While part of me thinks these are more relevant to discussion about Fairey and "his" works, it also sheds some light on the issues of entitlement, where people feel it's ok to take what they want if it serves their needs, without consideration for the hard work of others. Or as in something like The Molotov Man issue here:

http://firstpulseprojects.com/On-the-Rights-of-Molotov-Man.pdf

Photographer Susan Meiseles put herself in harm's way to capture that image (not to mention the cost of her gear, travel, living expenses etc), only to have an artist, Joy Garnett use it as the basis for a painting, without crediting the original work. I was struck by Garnett's words here:

"I saved the most promising images in folders on my computer desktop, and I let them sit for a while so I could forget where I found
them
. I wanted my choices to be based more on aesthetic criteria than on my emotional attachment to their narratives."

By "forgetting" where she found them and stripping them of their narratives, she steals the graphic impact of the image and any history is lost and becomes meaningless. She copied it and painted it, but didn't transform it. Garnett said, after being told whose image it was and learning more about it, "The man, it turned out, was a Nicaraguan rebel. The photograph was from Nicaragua, Susan's celebrated photo
essay on the revolution, published by Pantheon in 1981. I was fascinated by the original image
and the richness of the narrative behind it, but it didn't make any difference to me in terms of
permission or credit."


In other words: Cool image, works for me and that's all I care about.

Perhaps people like Fairey and Garnett need to leave their studios and get out and experience things firsthand. Maybe then they will be able to draw from themselves, and stop stealing from others when they go to create a work.

-Lane Hartwell