To do in NYC: Shepard Fairey + Lawrence Lessig + Steven Johnson on copyright, fair use, and AP shitstorm around Obama poster

On February 26 at the New York Public Library, there will be a group discussion with Lawrence Lessig, Shepard Fairey and former Boing Boing guest blogger Steven Johnson. The event is said to be Lessig's final planned public discussion of remix, copyright issues, and so on, before he departs Harvard this fall to head up the Safra Center for Ethics. There, he'll be directing interdisciplinary research on institutional corruption (medical, political, big picture things). Snip from the event description:

What is the future for art and ideas in an age when practically anything can be copied, pasted, downloaded, sampled, and re-imagined?

LIVE from the NYPL and WIRED Magazine kick off the Spring 2009 season with a spirited discussion of the emerging remix culture. Our guides through this new world–who will take us from Jefferson's Bible to André the Giant to Wikipedia–will be Lawrence Lessig, author of Remix, founder of Creative Commons, and one of the leading legal scholars on intellectual property issues in the Internet age; acclaimed street artist Shepard Fairey, whose iconic Obama "HOPE" poster was recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery; and cultural historian Steven Johnson, whose new book, The Invention of Air, argues that remix culture has deep roots in the Enlightenment and among the American founding fathers.

Tickets are on sale here, $25 general/$15 students or seniors. (Thanks, Melanie Cornwell!)

Above, a previous Boing Boing Video episode with Shepard Fairey, about how that Obama poster came to be.


  1. Wow, way to not ask any hard questions. I would have liked to hear him explain his staunch refusal to attribute the original imagine which the illustration is based on. The guy is kind of a self important douche, though his art is very iconic.

    1. guydmmann, my dear — if you seek to find the douche, look within.

      We taped this interview in October, 2008, long before the ownership/rights/freakout happened, and the focus at the time was elsewhere.

  2. I saw S.F. speak in the 90’s about the ATGHAP project. He’s a clever dude, well worth the time. And If Lessig were speaking alone it would be worth the price of admission.

  3. “gydmmnn, my dr — f y sk t fnd th dch, lk wthn.”
    Why th lp? H hs gd pnt, nd vn f th ntrvw ws tpd rlr hd t trn th trnsmssn ff rly s th slbbry rmjb Shprd Fry nd th gst blggr wr gvng bngbng ws t mch, hm, t swllw! Dfntly nt wrthy f pstng twc.

  4. how is this guy different from Todd Goldman who is so maligned by BB?

    i don’t see much of one (i.e. he makes money from ripping off other people’s work) but i’m open to more info than he’s simply one of Xeni’s friends.

  5. Really, Ol’ Sheps’ unrepentant wholesale lifting of material from other artists is hard to condone.

    Editorial chumship aside, the dude has ethical issues that exceed the scope of his well-used ‘edgy stalwart of the remix generation’ get outa jail free card.

    It’s sad. It’s also true. Chopping out vowels doesn’t change this.

  6. why do i get the feeling it’s the same handful of people who visit any posting in favor of shepard and post these same, boring links and try to bring him down? yes, we know, we know… we’ve all read these websites… we don’t CARE. if you can’t see that what shepard does is valid and worthwhile regardless of his technique, then i have no use for you. i say good DAY.

  7. Apparently the Jobsian RDF has entered a public beta, and Ol’ Shep is on the list.

    His technique is not-particularly-creative plagiarism, and encouraging him is only gonna make it worse (although it will undoubtedly swell his bank balance, which at the end of the day is really his only concern).

    If you want to admire something about him, admire his adept marketing skills, because the art you’re admiring was done by someone else.

  8. Kaden, that was a good link actually. I guess the point Franko’s trying to make is: some people like his art regardless of methods or skill.. complaining about his plagiarism on every post about him isn’t going to help dissuade them and will eventually just make you look bad.

  9. Kaden, reading further into the article you linked to, I actually have several major bones to pick with the author(s) and their point. One is this:

    [Referring to Lichtenstein: “everyone was cognizant of the artist’s source material – they were in on the joke. By contrast, Fairey simply filches artworks and hopes that no one notices – the joke is on you.”

    Why is it that Lichtenstein can wholesale lift work from various artists and not give credit and the audience is “in on the joke,” but when Fairey does the same it’s plagiarism? That makes no sense. Even their example, the Obey poster that’s lifted from 1984, looks to me like a pop culture reference. Many millions of people have seen that movie and it’s beyond unreasonable to think that Fairey wouldn’t know people would notice. I think instead he did exactly what Lichtensten did – use an image that conjures up a specific memory and mind set to convey a message.

    Regarding the Obama poster; if people can’t see the difference between his poster and the original (uncropped, photographic rather than painted) image then there’s not much hope for reason. It’s definitely based upon the original image, but it’s far more transformative than a Lichtenstein or Warhol work.

  10. Kaden: We saw that link in another SF thread here. It is old news and does not betray the “wholesale lifting of material from other artists” that you would like to ascribe to the artist. All artists borrow from what has gone before. Homage is what I would call each of the designs you would seem to be saying he is blatantly ripping off.

    Like other commentors above, I am tired of the Fairey-bashing. It seems to tell much more about the bashers than the subject at hand (I think Xeni said it best.)

    I found one of SF’s original Andre stickers back in the early 90’s and took an instant liking to it, because of the line work and the non-sequitor text. I affixed it to the case of a calculator it fit perfectly on, and enjoyed it far longer than the calculator lasted. I was quite happy to see his style make it bigtime from his humble street beginnings. Yes, he is a master of marketing. This is something you have to become to make it as a professional artist these days, in case you haven’t noticed. I have some experience in this, personally. I do not see this as a contradiction of terms. His style is striking, and images iconic. If I were in NYC, I would gladly pay $25 to attend this event. I believe it would be immensely informative. I will never understand why people feel the need to tear someone down for their successes.

    Anon: Thanks for the New Yorker article link.

  11. I did a blog post about this subject here:

    Something I mention in response to one of the comments to my blog entry is the fact that illustrators who do portraits of popular figures for print media almost ALWAYS use press photos without licensing the images. What else are they supposed to do? Take their own photos every time they need to portray a public figure? You can make a composite image based on a number of different photos, but unless it’s a caricature, this is very hard to pull off.

  12. It’s a really fascinating debate. This problem of where the copying becomes theft. Sure, artists look at press images and do portraits based on them. But do they take press photos and apply a Photoshop filter to them and present them as original works of art? You could turn Mr. Fairey’s colorization technique into a Photoshop filter and apply it to any photograph at all. Would you sign it and sell it or give it away with the claim that it’s a new artwork because you were the one who saw the potential in colorizing someone else’s photo?

    What if I played all of Charlie Parker’s music on a clarinet and changed the key slightly? Would it be mine?

    I love Lessig’s ideas about open source and the future of the internet. But I do not think he accounts for that unnoticed loose plank in the artists psyche when he or she produces art the way Mr. Fairey is doing. My bet is that if you stare them down long enough they’ll break and finally admit that they just could not think of what to do and so googled and googled until they found something to hang a slipcover on. Come on. We’ve all done it. I do it. Everything’s a copy of something under the sun. Right?

    My main problem with the iconic Obama image is that it is terrifyingly fascist. Not Obama himself, mind you. But the art. The image itself. This art is expressing something that I want absolutely no part of. I’ll keep it on my wall, but only to prove my point.

    And I wouldn’t get all caught up in worrying about ‘Fairey bashing.’ Bashing is fun. Art has always had the most wonderful bashers in it. So I will defend everyone’s right to bash freely and bash hard. Bash Bash. I love calling people names and writing nasty comments. Pure joy. The happiest people in New York are the taxi drivers.

  13. so there is no difference between Shepard Fairey and Todd Goldman?

    I’m honestly looking for someone to explain why it’s okay for SF to do what he does while it is not for TG…

    I don’t like the output of either “artist” (simply not my bag) and I’m not trying to malign anyone here. Just trying to understand what’s going on here and the arguments anti are carrying more weight for me. Time for the pro folk to step up and explain with things other than “you don’t get it” and “i’ve no use for you” non-points.

    is it that most of SF’s lifts are from the public domain, or that he has a “message”, or is it simply asthetic?
    Swap names and the article seems to fit.

  14. Senna1,

    Really good point. I totally forgot about that Goldman thing. I think that pretension plays a role in all this. Talk about animation or illustration and everyone gets annoyed by theft. But when you get involved with ‘art’ that’s another matter. Suddenly it’s all open source and homage and sharing and borrowing and inspiration.

    I’m going to reprint Don DeLillo’s latest novel but use green ink. It’s going to be my finest work. I’ve tried to reach him for permission but he won’t answer his phone so I’m assuming it’s just fine with him. After all, no answer is a ‘yes’ in my book.

  15. Here’s a lengthy article on Mr. Fairey’s supposedly radical art and his history of stealing from true radicals to cash in and make a quick buck:

    Sure, sometimes he is MAYBE re-contextualizing images of the past, but it seems more often than not he’s just stealing old designs that look cool and has some degree “leftist” “street cred” not adding to the dialogue or advancing any truly progressive ideas (unless you consider participating in capitalism in the United States a revolutionary act)

  16. @ #17 — yes, exactly that. you said it better than i did. as a student of art and art history back in my time, i am fully cognizant of shepard’s sources, but i also think that, regardless, it’s his technique and re-contextualizing that makes it something new and worthwhile. the more shrilly people try to tear him down, the more it just seems like sour grapes on their part to me.

  17. What sour grapes? Why not tear someone down? Sour grapes? The whole subject of this conversation is art/plagiarism. Why is there always someone in an argument who thinks that the people arguing the hardest have something wrong with them?

    My bowl of grapes is bigger than yours.

    It’s the passive acceptance of rubbish that actually really upsets me. Not sour grapes.

    I will happily extol the virtues and genius of Anselm Kiefer any day and every day. You want a truly deep analysis of fascism and politics and the imagery associated with those? Kiefer’s a great one to look at. But this Fairey fellow? T-shirt material all the way.

    But what a T-shirt! Wow!

  18. I’m honestly looking for someone to explain why it’s okay for SF to do what he does while it is not for TG…


    SF takes images and radically alters them. It’s not simple photoshopping.

    TG makes t-shirts with other peoples work on them. It is simple photoshopping.

    Any other obtuse questions?

  19. what a bunch of whiners. people said the same shit about picasso, the impressionists, the fauve, the dada movement, the abstract expressionists, pop art, op art, conceptual art, grafitti, ad nauseum. keep on whining! it just makes more do-re-mi for SF!

  20. I’m sure it’s been said before…

    “talent borrows, genius steals”
    —some weird guy named Pablo

  21. Yup. And people also said a bunch of things about Thomas Kinkade. And they were right.

    So instead of pointing out that people whine, defend a position. Make a point. Take a jab. Yeah, babe, we’re all a bunch of whiners and damn it’s so good.

    So what’s your argument? Make it. Got one? Really? Really?

  22. But there is a place for bashing here. It’s got my name on it.

    Bashing always sounds best when you do it against something solid and weighty. Ever notice that?

  23. @22 and 27:

    Perhaps because Goldman is unselfconsciously commercial and consumerist, and because Fairey gilds his crap art with a veneer of “edgy social consciousness,” that would-be Revolutionaries feel safe praising the one, dissing the other? Fairey’s fake edginess soothes, placates, lies, whereas Goldman’s pop mainstream kitsch is just de trop, too much a reminder that it’s all artifice and rhetoric?

    Or just look at their websites: Fairey is all Russian Constructivist pastiche with daaaark, brooooding colors, Goldman is all pop pinks and yellows and blues, with heteronormative “hot” models wearing his (admittedly awful) shirts. (Fairey makes love to Fascist aesthetics without any dialectical frisson, but that’s another matter….) No self-respecting dumpster-diving, made-a-house-from-a-ukulele, bad-sci-fi-reading hipster wants pink!

  24. You can’t argue with people who paste the same link in over and over as if this were some new revelation, confuse fascism with communism, and are so full of pride at their insipid trolling as to be beyond consideration of anything with an open mind. Thanks for contributing to this “discussion.” If you want to devolve into senseless bashing, please go back to slashdot or wherever you came from. OBEY!

  25. mintphresh,

    I am a whiney bitch. Truly. I accept, in its entirety, your most appropriate and appealing appellation. However, there are bigger and better whiney bitches than me. I’ve met them.

  26. “Bashing always sounds best when you do it against something solid and weighty. Ever notice that?”

    The troll’s confession and the admission of his subject’s legitimacy all wrapped up in one tidy bow. Thanks A’ssandro!

  27. Phikus,

    What’s a troll? Seriously. I don’t really know. I can’t confess to it if I don’t get it. But yes, you perceive the intent of my ‘solid and weighty’ phrase very accurately.

    I’ll go one step further and say that this artist, as horrendous and savage as he might be, has created some of the most absolutely gorgeous images I have ever seen. Beauty.

    Now don’t ask me to ever say it again. Because I won’t. I’ll say I was on something before I will ever confess to making this comment.

  28. @ 27

    “SF takes images and radically alters them. It’s not simple photoshopping.

    TG makes t-shirts with other peoples work on them. It is simple photoshopping.

    Any other obtuse questions?”

    Your point was well taken… ’til you proved yourself to be quite the douchebox.

    You say that SF’s work isn’t simple photoshopping but as someone who just spent the last 8 hours in CS4… I beg to differ. Well, it may not be simple PS but it could be. No more difficult to produce what he does with a computer than with whatever medium he chooses. Now I’m talking about the output not the “meaning” behind it.

    I don’t suppose there is some other SF fan who can explain the difference w/out resorting to insults?

  29. @ Zeni and other Mods, how is this “copyfight”? Fairey’s taken many of his images from free-use sources and copyrighted them. Don’t slangy buzzwords like copyfight (?!?) need to mean a stable set of things, and not their exact opposites, to be useful? Really, I’m calling you out on this (lol): everywhere on BoingBoing it’s copyfight this, copyfight that, “the data wants to be free,” yadda yadda, but here Saint Fairey’s making big $$$ off of works he’s REMOVED from the public domain, only to claim public domain status for the copyrighted sources like the AP photo, from which he’s created one of his own copyrighted images!!!

    Is this just a big joke?

  30. Senna1,

    So I would then ask you to make an image and send it to me.

    Make one. If it’s simple, just make one and show it to me. I’m not a fan of Mr. Fairey at all. But please, make me an image.

  31. But please, make me an image.

    *poof*… you’re an image

    sure, i’ll take an hour tomorrow during the first half of my workday and I’ll trace something up for you. CS does not open when I’m not on the clock… not even for a challenge :-)

    wanna send me a link to an image you’d like “originated”? If not I’ll just pick something. I’ll even leave it vectorized if’n you’d like to tweak it to your liking.

  32. tdawwg, shepard fairey does NOT own the copyright for the image. obama does. SF signed over all rights to the image to BHO. and allessandro(#36), don’t sell yourself short, homie! and senna1, kindly point out which filter that is that i could load that photo of obama, and come out with ANYTHING like the SF poster image. i’ll wait.

  33. “You could turn Mr. Fairey’s colorization technique into a Photoshop filter and apply it to any photograph at all. Would you sign it and sell it or give it away with the claim that it’s a new artwork because you were the one who saw the potential in colorizing someone else’s photo?”

    I recently made this image inspired by Fairey’s portrait:

    it wasn’t exactly paint by number. I don’t believe someone without a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of design, color, line and form could make either image. No photoshop filter could do the job. Sure, you might be able to come up with a filter or program that could make something LIKE what Fairey came up with, but he had to make creative decisions that aren’t arbitrary or formulaic to make an image that’s much more compelling than the press photo he started out with.

    If you think it’s easy, give it a shot sometime.

    As for the image representing fascism–it was inspired by a movement of art that was used to promote fascism, but the art style itself isn’t inherently fascist. I don’t believe it’s Fairey’s intention to promote Obama as a dictator, or that this is how the image is being interpreted. I can see how an argument can be made that, in the image, he’s somehow deifying Obama as Stalin was Deified, but it’s hard to see it that way in contemporary context without irony or reserve. There’s no way to look at it in it’s present context as anything other than a post-modern object.

  34. @ senna1 i don’t see much of one (i.e. he makes money from ripping off other people’s work) but i’m open to more info than he’s simply one of Xeni’s friends.

    I’m sorry, did I spill your own “douchebox” on you?

  35. @ 44 “senna1, kindly point out which filter that is that i could load that photo of obama, and come out with ANYTHING like the SF poster image. i’ll wait.”

    when did I say anything about a filter? i will trace an image and add effects and a background. just like SF does. the image i produce for allesandro probably won’t look like the obama picture but it might have a similar feel to some of his other work. after all, I could use autotrace on some guns and then stick some flowers in the barrel. done

    as to which program I’d use I would go with illustrator over photoshop… but that’s just me.

  36. @ mdh I’m sorry, did I spill your own “douchebox” on you?

    lol… i suppose i deserved that one. i still haven’t read much that dispels my reasoning for the statement tho.

  37. senna1, that had nuttin at all to do with shepard fairey, and more to do with your ignance. fairey needs no defense from me. does goldman call what he does “art”? if he does, then, no difference. if he does not, then a world of difference. the difference is in the intention. i don’t have as much familiarity with goldman’s work to be able to deconstruct it stylistically and compare/contrast it to SF’s work. but style is a far more subjective thing anyway. the most important thing is did that person intend to make a work of “art”? if so, then the work is “art”. how the public perceives it basically determines its’ worth during the artists’ lifetime. how that artists’ work effected his/her society determines the artists’ place in (art) history.

  38. mintphresh..
    what ignance? i do not claim to have anything other than a fleeting knowledge of shepard fairey. that is why i asked for people to post some positives to counter the negatives. i don’t care for the style of art so never looked into him. if fairey does have a message i would appreciate it if his “fans” would say what it is. the net is full of negativity for the man and his work so i post here… and get nothing but vitriolic rhubarb for it.

    i’m not looking for an art lesson. i didn’t ask for one. i fully understand the concept (although I do not fully agree with yours).

    sadly, it seems, folks simply like to attack rather than offer constructive points.

    said that the technical aspects of tracing another picture and adding a nifty background is easy because it just that. if there is a “message” or “meaning” behind it all is another story. i have said as such in my previous posts. now if fairey is doing even the copying freehand rather than tracing… then color me impressed.

    as far as being famous? never cared for it. i am good enough to pay the bills with the occasional vacation… next stop San Francisco for Throbbing Gristle in April. Now THAT is Art!

  39. SENNA1:

    There’s no trick in doing something in the style of someone else. I’m sure you could also do a real bang-up Warhol style portrait.

    True, Fairey didn’t invent the style, but for whatever reason, the image he made stuck. People remembered it. No one else but Fairey did that image. The press photo on which it was based didn’t have that impact. Obviously he wasn’t trying to suggest that he had invented the style, and there was some irony in his using the style for his own kind of propaganda, and people responded to it.

    hundreds of people have done images in the style of Fairey’s image, myself included, but we didn’t come up with the idea. Fairey did. Doing an image in the style of Fairey does absolutely nothing to disprove Fairey’s originality. This “my six year old could do better than that” attitude is not enlightening.

    Goldman appropriated images and concepts outright, made nothing new, there was no special quality in his version of the images he appropriated that made them unique, or made people want to pay attention.

  40. jed – thank you for offering up a constructive point. i agree that the “six year old” attitude is not enlightening. i, for one, never claimed that i could/would come up with “better” than fairey. my aesthetic is much different. but as you pointed out, it’s not difficult to copy or do similar. no problem with that but i was eluding to nothing more.

    his brand of art doesn’t move me. it never has. that’s not meant as an insult to the man or his output. diff’rent strokes.

    it was only an issue with me because i remember the brouhaha over Goldman. i remember a post at bb about someone selling a t-shirt about Goldman’s using other people’s images.

    i then saw the debate here recently over Fairey who seems to be doing the same thing. Making money off other’s work.

    just trying to figure out the difference between the two. why one is loved, the other hated.

    oh, and I don’t have much issue with the “Obama” shot(save that he should credit the photographer and/or pay the license fee just like i do every month).

    it’s no different than stealing a typeface named something slightly different from font yukle (hey house industries… can I get a free one for that?)

  41. This came up in my quotes iGoogle gadget today:

    “You can calculate the worth of a man by the caliber of his enemies, and the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it.” –Gustave Flaubert

  42. It’s an old debate–Campbells threatened to sue Warhol but thought better of it. Now they hang Warhol’s original in their corporate offices. The question is: is the new work original enough or unique enough in comparison to the work from which it was derived? This is an aesthetic issue, and aesthetics can’t be quantified or measured. Aesthetics are subjective and intuitive, and when it comes to the law, it’s all about precedent.

  43. Senna1,

    I was only teasing you. I didn’t really mean to challenge you with making an image. But the arguments here are just fascinating me. The Warhol comparisons are interesting. But didn’t he draw a can of soup, not copy a label? Isn’t there an enormous difference between the two acts? If he paints a can of soup, he’s not copying the label designer. If he traces the label and shows it as an original work, then he is copying the label designers. But maybe not. Since the label designer intended a can label and not an artwork, perhaps even tracing the label and framing it as art is not an act of copying since the intent is totally different.

    Perhaps intent is everything. When I visit Fairey’s web site I come away with the impression of a serious artist at work on something. Perhaps he is not. I don’t know. I’d bust him up for stealing something of mine, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a wicked artist. Hell, didn’t Cervantes murder someone on a beach somewhere? Bastards make beautiful things everyday.

    As for the fascist elements of Fairey’s work not being intended to promote fascism: well, yes, sure maybe that’s right. But that lingo in fascist imagery exists for a reason. You may think or say you stand against the fascist thing and simply use its tropes and images to do something else, but that visual language is a machine invented to do a certain thing and to do it well. We’ll see. If I were to trust anyone with anything it would be an artist though.

    But the Obama campaign has brought symbolic logo-oriented, personality-glorifying imagery into American politics, perhaps with the best of intentions, but that is exactly what the fascists did. Exactly. Rewind. These images should inspire extreme caution. Perhaps the benefit of the doubt should go to Fairey.

    Or maybe this is all just nothing at all. You can’t really tell in advance can you?

Comments are closed.