Shepard Fairey Admits Wrongdoing in AP Photo Use for Obama Campaign Posters

October 21, 2009  |  5:07pm

As it captures an unwavering stare in patriotic hues, Shepard Fairey’s poster supporting Barack Obama, the inspiration behind Obamicon.me, is now considered an iconic emblem. But while the vision may live on, its visionary is now compromised in a year-old battle of rights, after he admitted to lying about its original source.

Contrary to what he said a few months ago, Fairey now acknowledges that he used an Associated Press photo different from the one he originally claimed to use. But, instead of admitting to his mistake, proceeded to delete the electronic files he used to create the poster.

In February, the AP claimed it should receive compensation for the photo, taken at an April 2006 event held at the District’s National Press Club. In reply, Fairey said that lawyers believed him to be protected under fair use, because he held artistic intentions and found the photo through Google.

In March, the AP countersued Fairey’s case and claimed that Fairey used a photo from the same event, though not the one of Obama with George Clooney as the artist claimed. The AP found the poster’s likeness to another solo photo obvious, though according to its most recent statement, it proceeded to request electronic documents as proof.

But what Fairey passed along instead was a second set of electronic files, including an altered version of the Clooney photo and fake stencil patterns, in hopes of concealing his mistake from his counsel. Fairey now says that he reacted once he realized he erred. “While I initially believed that the photo I referenced was a different one, I discovered early on in the case that I was wrong,” he said in a statement made Friday.

In light of his amended pleadings, as Fairey’s counsel voiced their intent to withdraw, the AP showed no signs of backing down. “Fairey had licensed AP photos in the past for similar uses and should have done so in this case,” AP in-house counsel Laura Malone said in a statement released Friday. “As a not-for-profit news organization, the AP depends on licensing revenue to stay in business.”

Fairey now expresses remorse, though with hints of hope that his intentions with the photo remain clear. “There are some things being portrayed as if I was premeditative and sinister about which photo I used. That’s not the case,” he said to more than 700 guests at his exhibition debut at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum.

But Fairey also hopes he remains a bit of a patron saint for the cause he championed in February. “I am also sorry because my actions may distract from what should be the real focus of my case—the right to fair use so that all artists can create freely,” he said in Friday’s statement. “Regardless of which two of the images was used, the fair use issue should be the same.”

And as the court case continues to develop, Jay Strell, Fairey’s spokesperson, hopes that people remember why the poster exists. “The reason why Shepard did this wasn’t to make money,” Strell tells Paste. “The reason Shepard did this was to get Barack Obama elected.”

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