Copyright Battle Over Obama’s Image

Artists borrow material to create new art. This practice is widely acknowledged and condoned in art circles. Daniel Grant makes this point in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Mr. Grant also points out, however, that copyright law can potentially render artistic borrowing an unlawful transgression. What is routine practice in the arts may lead to litigation and an intellectual property minefield.

Mr. Grant’s article discusses the Rogers v. Koons case. In that case the renowned artist Jeff Koons was sued by photographer Art Rogers. Mr. Koons made an unauthorized sculptural and literal rendition of a photograph taken by Mr. Rogers that depicted a family with eight puppies. A federal court found that the sculptural representation amounted to copyright infringement. Mr Koons unsuccessfully argued that creating the sculpture from the photograph was a transformative social commentary. This type of commentary, he argued, was an important artistic activity. It was a good argument, but not a legally persuasive one.

The Rogers v. Koons case was decided in 1992. Seventeen years later, a very similar case is now publicly unfolding. This case also involves an artist and a photographer. In this case, the artist is Shepard Fairey, who created the Obama Poster shown below from a photograph taken by photographer Mannie Garcia. Mr. Garcia, who is a freelance photographer, was working for the Associated Press at the time he took the photograph, shown below next to the poster image. Mr. Fairey based his image on the photograph without asking the Associated Press for permission. Now, Mr. Fairey has sued the Associated Press to have the copyright issue resolved.

AP Photo vs. Mr. Fairey's Rendering
AP Photo vs. Mr. Fairey's Rendering

The question, however, remains contested. How can one determine if their new work has unlawfully copied another work? How much borrowing is permitted? Prior cases, like Rogers v. Koons state that an original work is copied when “the accused work is so substantially similar to the copyrighted work that reasonable jurors could not differ on this issue.” That is a fuzzy boundary that is determined on a case-by-case basis.

So here’s my question:

2 thoughts on “Copyright Battle Over Obama’s Image

  1. Professor, thanks for another timely and relevant insight. This is indeed an interesting and complex issue. As a Vice President for a multinational corporation with a wife in the not-for-profit art/music world, I have had numerous occasions to discuss/debate this matter with people on both sides of the issue. I find that while not many people understand the nuances of this issue (aside from myself because I read your blogs), they do have STRONG opinions. Personally I believe this is not a black and white, all or nothing issue and both parties interests must be respected and protected. If the Chicago Cubs, City of Chicago and owners of the rooftops outside of Wrigley Field who were benefiting financial by selling their “view” of Cubs games can reach a revenue sharing agreement, then I believe that a reasonable solution can be found which protect the initial vision and creativity we so cherish in this country while allowing those who are inspired by that initial creativity to further develop and advance… be it technology, art or other forms of IP. I believe Fair Use needs to be fair to all. Unilaterally hiding behind Fair Use appears to me to be greedy and selfish.

  2. Michael,

    Thanks for your very well thought out comment. The intellectual property laws are designed to strike a balance between the innovator and society. The tricky question is where to draw the line. Many believe intellectual property has gone too far. As a knowledge-consuming and producing society we should all participate in this debate.

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