Last Friday, Los Angeles street artist Shepard Fairey pleaded guilty in a New York City courthouse to a copyright case filed by the Associated Press. Fairey admitted to using an unauthorized AP photo for his Obama “Hope” poster and for forging documents to conceal it. He was charged with both misconduct and criminal contempt for destroying documents and faking evidence. He could face up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine if found guilty.
Most recognized for his image of Andre the Giant, his Obey merchandise and Obama’s “Hope” poster, Fairey has garnered international attention for his bold statements through simple aesthetics. The Obama “Hope” image was commissioned by TIME Magazine in 2008 for their Person of the Year cover. While the image became an iconic symbol of the 2008 election, it was never officially endorsed by Obama’s campaign.
In 2009, after AP accused Fairey of infringing on copyright laws and demanded compensation for the image, Fairey sued the organization in October of that year. He brought the case to federal court, claiming that he hadn’t violated any laws because the photo was protected by the “fair use” doctrine. In response, AP retaliated and filed a lawsuit against Fairey.
Fairey originally stated that he had based the poster’s image off an AP photograph of Barack Obama and George Clooney at the National Press Club event in 2006. In reality, Fairey had used an unlicensed, solo photo of Obama taken at the same event without crediting AP at all. To cover this up, Fairey compiled false documents, changed others, and deleted files that proved he had used the unlicensed photo.
Fairey and AP reached a settlement in January 2011. Under the settlement, Fairey is not allowed to use AP photographs without a license. They also agreed to share the rights to create future posters and merchandise. However, Fairey could still receive up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. His sentence will be issued on July 16.
Fairey is known for breaking rules, trespassing grounds and vandalizing walls in the name of guerilla-style art. But regardless of trend and style, Fairey still claims to value the work of all artists and the rights to their art. In a 2011 AP-released statement, Fairey stated, “I respect the work of photographers, as well as recognize the need to preserve opportunities for other artists to make fair use of photographic images.”