Sunday, March 08, 2009

Disobey Shepard Fairey

Larkin Werner's 'Obey Steelerbaby' next to a poster by Shepard Fairey.

Last month Shepard Fairey was interviewed by Terry Gross for NPR. The world renowned artist discussed his pre-emptive lawsuit against the Associated Press due to the media giants copyright infringement allegations concerning his Obama posters-- Fairey had used an AP owned photograph by Mannie Garcia as the base image for his posters. Fairey is represented by Stanford Law School's Fair Use Project (FUP)-- an organization that claims to support an extension of the boundaries of "fair use" in order to “enhance creative freedom“. However, it appears that Shepard Fairey does not agree with FUP 100%-- at least when his work is used by others under "fair use".
Based on Shepard Fairey's recent statements you would think that he would fully support artists using his widely known images under "fair use". After all, in the NPR interview Fairey suggested that his lawsuit against the Associated Press is important because he views it as standing up for the rights of artists who create art that is protected under "fair use". However, Shepard Fairey has a history of threatening artists with legal action when they utilize his famous artwork under "fair use"-- even if the artist did not willfully infringe. The most recent situation involves graphic designer Larkin Werner and his Cafepress store.

Early last month-- before the NPR interview-- Shepard Fairey’s Obey Giant Art Inc. sent a cease-and-desist letter concerning a Cafepress store titled Steelerbaby-- Larkin Werner‘s account. Obey Giant Art Inc. took action due to the fact that Werner had been selling a version of his ’Steelerbaby’ doll that involved the word ‘obey’. Shepard Fairey feels that the merchandise involving the word "Obey" is an infringement on his trademark. However, Werner claims that his use of ‘obey’ was not inspired by Shepard Fairey. In fact, Werner has suggested that “Obey Steelerbaby’ is one of several catch phrases spoken by the doll at, The obey phrase is popular among fans of Steelerbaby.
Obey Giant Art Inc. took issue with Werner due to the fact that the graphic artist had designed merchandise based on the popularity of Steelerbaby’s "Obey Steelerbaby" catch phrase. The merchandise, which was sold on Cafepress, involved pictures of the Steelerbaby doll standing between the words “Obey” and “Steelerbaby” while others featured the word “Obey” above the doll. According to the Pittsburgh City Paper, Werner-- who is based in Pittsburgh-- had earned around $70 from selling “Obey Steelerbaby” merchandise on Cafepress. That said, Shepard Fairey’s representatives feel that Werner’s “Obey Steelerbaby” merchandise is a direct threat to Shepard Fairey’s trademark and business.
According to the Pittsburgh City Paper, Olivia Perches-- the representative of Shepard Fairey who sent the cease-and-desist letter to Cafepress-- has suggested that Obey Giant Art Inc. owns the use of ‘Obey’ and that artists can’t use the word ‘Obey’ in their artwork or designs. Chris Broders, a business partner involved with Fairey’s Obey clothing line, has suggested that the use of “Obey” becomes an issue when artists or other individuals profit from the “‘Obey’ mark”. He went on to suggest that Fairey’s representatives and business partners will do what they can in order to “protect" their "trademark". Needless to say, Larkin Werner feels that Shepard Fairey is being a hypocrite due to the fact that Fairey has established a career from creating images under "fair use" of copyright and trademark law.
A comparison of a poster by Shepard Fairey (left) next to a poster by Baxter Orr (right). Orr put a SARs protective mask over the famous Obey Giant image and titled it ‘Protect’. Fair Use? You be the judge.

This is not the first time that Shepard Fairey has attacked "fair use". In 2008 there was a story concerning “fair use” and Shepard Fairey in The Austin Chronicle. The situation involved the famous Shepard Fairey and emerging artist Baxter Orr. Orr created a parody of the iconic Obey Giant image-- which he distributed and sold. Orr-- being cynical of Shepard Fairey -- strived to make a visual statement about Fairey’s art and practice in general. One could say that Orr’s appropriation of the Obey Giant image was in itself a statement on Fairey’s practice of appropriating from other artists.

Viewers of the work recognized that Orr had made a visual statement about Shepard Fairey and the Obey Giant image. There was no confusion as to who made what. Thus, it did not take long for Orr’s image to be picked up by art bloggers-- which stirred debate concerning Fairey’s artwork, the copyright infringement allegations that have shadowed Fairey’s career, and Fairey’s own history of appropriation.

Eventually Orr received a cease-and-desist letter from Obey Giant Art Inc. However, Orr continues to sell his parody, now titled ‘Protect Yourself -- Giant’, for $25.00 on his website, Oddly enough, some artists have started to parody the situation between Baxter Orr and Shepard Fairey:
A parody of the Orr, Fairey, and Associated Press disputes by Dan Nolan.

I find it odd that Shepard Fairey suggested on NPR that he is fighting for the rights of all artists concerning “fair use” when earlier that month he had sent a cease-and-desist letter to Larkin Werner. After all, supporters of Shepard Fairey have suggested that the Associated Press has “bullied” Fairey-- some have went as far as to suggest that the AP has attacked "fair use". You would think these strong supporters of "fair use" would call Shepard Fairey out just as they have called the AP out concerning "fair use". Right?

One must ask-- where was Lawrence Lessig, Anthony Falzone, the Fair Use Project, and other supporters of extreme interpretations of "fair use" when Shepard Fairey 'bullied' Baxter Orr and Larkin Werner concerning issues involving “fair use”? Is Shepard Fairey truly fighting the good fight for “fair use” or is he, as the Phantom Street Artist suggested, fighting for “Fairey use”?

The contradictions involving Shepard Fairey are widespread. Unfortunately, the major media has barely reported on this aspect of Shepard Fairey and "fair use". Instead, most have conveniently championed Fairey as an advocate for “fair use”-- which is obviously false. If anything, Shepard Fairey is a champion for his own work involving "fair use".

In closing, I think Shepard Fairey needs to realize that artists can, and will, use trademark protected images under “trademark fair use” within the context of their own work. I’m not against “fair use”-- though I do think it should be limited. That said, if Shepard Fairey is allowed to extend the boundaries of “fair use” I think he needs to realize that he is opening the doors for his own work to be exploited by legal gray areas. My guess is that artists and other creative individuals will continue to disobey Shepard Fairey's copyright and trademark-- especially if he wins his case against the Associated Press. Be careful which doors you open Mr. Fairey-- they may lead back to you.

UPDATE: It appears that Shepard Fairey has dropped his cease-and-desist against Cafepress and Larkin Werner's Steelerbaby store. My sources tell me it was dropped on March 10th-- just days after this post. There are three rumors floating around as to why the cease-and-desist was dropped:

1.) Shepard Fairey did not want the negative press going into his case against the Associated Press-- kind of hard to be a champion of "fair use" when you oppose it, true?

2.) Lawrence Lessig, Anthony Falzone, and the Fair Use Project did not want negative press concerning contradictions of "fair use" in regards to their client-- Shepard Fairey. After all, the Fair Use Project supports an extended interpretation of "fair use" in general. It would not look good if their client flip-flops on his opinion of "fair use".

3.) Shepard Fairey did not want negative press-- period. It seems the press honeymoon is over. Recently Shepard Fairey has been ripped apart by the press-- a far cry from the constant praise he received for months due to his work for the Obama campaign.

Werner's 'Obey Steelerbaby' items have returned to Cafepress,

Links of Interest:
Steelerbaby Blues by Chris Young -- Pittsburgh City Paper

Fair Use: Shepard Fairey and Baxter Orr by Brian Sherwin -- Myartspace Blog

Birds of a Feather Flock Together: Damien Hirst & Shepard Fairey / Cartrain & Baxter Orr by Brian Sherwin -- Myartspace Blog

Artist Cage Match: Fairey vs. Orr by Richard Whittaker -- The Austin Chronicle

Integrity Lost: Lawrence Lessig helps Shepard Fairey by Brian Sherwin -- Myartspace Blog

The Phantom Street Artist speaks out against Shepard Fairey in Citizen LA by Brian Sherwin -- Myartspace Blog

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor
New York Art Exchange


Anonymous said...

On the Stanford law website there is a rant about the Fair Use Project and Fairey. It quotes a Huffington Post article: “You almost want the case end up in court, since a win for Fairey would protect artistic freedom and discourage those who seek to stifle it.”. Shepard Fairey has stifled creativity just as much as the Associated Press. It is worse because he is an artist preventing other artists from exploring. He comes off like the recess bully who finally met his match. The Fair Use Project should drop him before the bad press rolls in. I don't know what Lessig is thinking. He dropped the ball with this one.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Shepard is worried about this stuff. Dude is facing 3 years in prison. I hope the people in Boston are happy.

Anonymous said...

I read that too. There were 10 undercover officers at the ICA opening keeping tabs on him before the arrest. Shepard posted about it on his website. He did not mention that he had a old warrant out for his arrest. But 10 officers is excessive if you ask me. They should have waited until after the big night. He also called the NYC police facists a few posts down. Police and Shepard Fairey don't mix. hah.

Anonymous said...

This case has more twists than Pulp Fiction. Perfect material for a movie.

jafabrit said...

"artists can’t use the word ‘Obey’ in their artwork or designs."

OBEY OBEY OBEY cease and desist orders, well not his own, but others should OBEY! his. uh huh!!!!!!!!!
What a circus!!!!!!

jafabrit said...

wait a min, I used the word OBEY on a faf bug a couple of years ago, dang!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Good mention of The Phantom Street Artist ...

'Is Shepard Fairey truly fighting the good fight for “fair use” or is he, as the Phantom Street Artist suggested, fighting for “Fairey use”? '

'Be careful which doors you open Mr. Fairey-- they may lead back to you.'

Karma Karma Karma...

kurios said...

Yeah, him sending a C&D is hypocritical.

Also, he wants to claim ownership on "OBEY"? Really? I guess the governments of the world and propaganda departments are out of luck now that they need to find a synonym in order to get followers. And there is nothing quite as succinct as "obey;" perhaps SUBMIT...hmm.

I did like the Changed! Obama picture though. Great statement.

jesseedwards said...


Anonymous said...

OBEY the Law.

Anonymous said...

A day after you posted this Shepard Fairey dropped his cease and desist against Werner. His Obey Steelerbaby items are back on Cafepress!

Hugh said...

Some silly stuff. Not only is it ridiculous on its merits, but it's just a guy getting a little profit off what is really an inside joke. I mean, is the Obama Poster Man's livelihood really threatened by a ridiculous "Steelerbaby," even if it looked anything like his Andre the Giant (which was also created from someone else's image)? We're living in a comic book world, mate.

Dan Nolan said...

thanks, kurios.

obe lincoln