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Steal This Poster

At some point in 2008 a postcard with a tricolor, artist’s image of Barack Obama, the word “Hope” stenciled across the bottom, materialized in our house.

I had no idea how it reached us, whether it was official campaign material or unofficial, how it was delivered, or who produced it and under what circumstances. One day it was just there.

The creator of that image on the postcard, I later learned, is the street artist Shepherd Fairey, long a figure on the fringe who uses viral methods to propagate images he produces, the best known being the ubiquitous OBEY Giant posters  from the 1990s. He created the Hope image in answer to his own inspiration, not a commission. But that hasn’t stopped the Associated Press from suing Fairey over copyright infringement claiming that the artist stole an AP image to create his poster.

I find the suit to be illustrative of our collective confusion over how to govern copyright in today’s cut-and-paste culture. With technologies of reproduction and alteration literally at our fingertips, we have thoroughly destabilized the laws that establish and protect the original, as well as those that establish fair use. And we are truly, staggeringly confused about how to put those laws back together. On the one hand we celebrate the extraordinarily diverse cultural output produced by those who once were merely consumers. We even invite them to step into our brand story and become co-narrators. On the other hand we fear that the story will spin outside of the boundaries we’ve set. Facing this fear, our instinct is to protect and preserve the story, our story. It’s precisely these opposite tendencies that come to light in the Fairey case. While the AP sues Fairey, the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. has added his “Hope” piece to its permanent collection! But not to worry—it’s the copies and the knock-offs, like the postcard that found its way into my house, that command a real place in history.

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