Inspiration, Fairey and George Orwell

“[I]t wasn’t created to say that you can’t be inspired “

So says Shepard Fairey in discussing Copyrights in an interview with Justin Shady of the Onion AV Club:

The A.V. Club: You’ve used photo references throughout your career, even going back to the André The Giant image that became your signature. But the Obama “Hope” poster sparked a legal battle between you and the Associated Press. Where’s the line between intellectual property and creative expression?

Obama Hope by Shepard FaireyShepard Fairey: The most important thing about intellectual property vs. creative expression is that copyright law was created not to stifle creativity, but to encourage creativity. The idea behind copyrighting was that if you made something, a piece of music or art or a product, someone cannot make an exact facsimile or replica of it, because that would hurt your ability to sell the exact same thing. But it wasn’t created to say that you can’t be inspired by something and make an evolution of that, something that transforms it. A lot of classical music or even aspects of the Declaration Of Independence are all borrowed from works that came before them. Now, there’d be lawsuits over all this stuff, but the common sense was that you build on ideas. If what you build doesn’t compete on the market for the thing that inspired it, then everyone wins.

And that’s the way I look at this Obama image. First of all, the AP is showing the wrong photo. I’d found this image of George Clooney and Obama at this Darfur panel, and I thought, “That’s kind of the right look for Obama.” When I saw the one they had, I thought they’d just cropped in on the same photo, but I realized it was taken either a split second before or a split second after. It’s interesting how once you have my poster and everyone knows it as a reference, everyone wants to work backward and find the source. But the source was completely irrelevant to the final cause, because Obama wasn’t even running for president yet when that was happening. It was a news photo. What I created was clearly a presidential poster—new colors, new slogan, totally stylized and idealized, and it doesn’t compete with the original.

That makes good sense I think, and whatever you think of Fairey, I think he does have a point that so much of what is created owes a debt to what has come before; and overly restrictive copyright regimes thwart that creation.   For another example, Paul Owen in the Guardian recently argued George Orwell’s 1984 owes much of its “plot, characters and conclusion” to a work by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We”.  He reviewed the work in 1946, three years before he published 1984.  But as Owen argues:
So does it matter that Orwell borrowed plot and characters from the earlier book? After all, it seems clear that he made a superior work of literature out of them. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s importance comes not so much from its plot as from its immense cultural impact, which was recognised almost immediately when it won the £357 Partisan Review prize for that year’s most significant contribution to literature, and which has continued to this day. Most of the aspects and ideas of the novel that still resonate so strongly in political life are his own: newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, the Thought Police, Room 101; the extreme use of propaganda, censorship and surveillance; the rewriting of history; labels and slogans that mean the opposite of what they say; the role for Britain implied in the name Airstrip One.
Questions or Comments? Email me at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.