Shepard Fairey Pleads Guilty In Copyright Case

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.”

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    Share Your Thoughts


  1. Dillon Rogers says

    Would really suck to see him go to jail. Granted, what he did was stupid (should have just given AP credit – yikes, the lengths he went to in order to cover this up), but an artist that is not a physical or mental threat to anyone should not be sitting in a jail cell.

    Money is what his plagiarism got him, money is what it should, alone, cost him.

  2. says

    Sharon, the assertion Dillon made was that if a crime creates solely monetary gains, then it should only incur monetary penalties. Madoff didn’t create “physical or a mental threat to anyone”, yet I think everyone can agree he should sit behind bars. I don’t know the details on this situation, so I don’t have an opinion on whether he should go to jail. All I’m saying is that the assertion is logically flawed.

  3. Sharon Wu says

    I totally get what you’re saying, but because the two situations are completely different, I don’t think Dillon’s statement is meant to apply to a crime like the one committed by Bernie Madoff. What Madoff did definitely created a “physical and mental threat” to people. His scheme took millions from important groups, including hospitals, non-profits, charities, universities, and individuals.

    Fairey violated copyright laws for a photograph. I have to agree with Dillon here.

  4. Isaac Green says

    They both stole. Its interesting how stealing a huge amount from one person can be seen as less vile than stealing far far less per capita from an huge amount of people.