A Stunning Confession Potentially Destroys Fariey’s Fair Use Defense

Despite 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.  Oneformer 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 includingTom 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.

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About Dave Rein

Dave Rein focuses on and will continue to focus on copyright, trademark and patent litigation until the National Geographic adds him to its staff of photographers. In addition to counseling and litigating on behalf of the firm’s clients, he also helps clients through the Kansas City Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts where he also serves as a board member. Prior to representing clients, Dave clerked for a federal district court judge who kindly provided invaluable advice and mentorship
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