What constitutes originality?

Doh! I’m so last century.

In February I wrote a little piece about the Associated Press suing artist Shepard Fairey for copyright infringement. They say he based his Obama “Hope” poster on an AP photograph. I came down strongly on Fairey’s side.

Somehow, in my Twentieth Century brain, I had envisioned Fairey sticking the photo up somewhere as a visual reference while he created his work from scratch, somewhat akin to painting while a live model sits in front of you. Artists often work from photos of their subject, be it a person, a still life, or a landscape. That way the lighting doesn’t change, the perspective doesn’t change, the subject doesn’t move. I was giving him credit for a photorealistic pop art painting. Mea culpa.

Not once did I consider that Fairey (described as a “street artist” and arrested recently for tagging) had the photo on a computer and with a few keystrokes employed the “high contrast” and “posterize” filters to produce his image. Is that creativity and originality? Or is it simply manipulating someone else’s work?

The computer scenario seemed the obvious one after I read Wired’s report on the case. Yet I’m still asking myself: Does or should a mug shot of a public figure carry an enforceable copyright? Is a computer-manipulated version of someone else’s photo an original work of art, or must the original photo also have been the artist’s? And why did AP wait until Fairey’s work became famous around the world before filing a suit?

I’m sure all parties in the case are relieved I’m not the judge. The judge is supposed to decide all the questions, not ask them.

Producing art with a computer is a relatively new concept. Initially it might not seem as “hands on” as, say, an artist brushing oil paints onto a linen canvas. Yet it requires an artist’s eye to envision the finished work and employ his tools, whatever they might be, to achieve it. It doesn’t matter if the tools are brush and canvas, camera and film, cutting torch and sheet metal, or computer and print-out.

As for the source of an artist’s inspiration, who can say? There’s nothing new under the sun. Or is there?

One thought on “What constitutes originality?

  1. He used an actual photo that was taken by the AP and just touched it up? To me that is copyright infringement. To me, it’s like taking an artist’s painting, painting over it with different colors, and calling it your own, and that’s not right.

    From the first story I read, I got the impression that his work was an original painting. I thought that was okay. The story I read this morning (link above) seems to be saying the poster was a computer-manipulated version of the original AP photo. That’s not okay.

    Either the reporters didn’t choose their words carefully enough, or I didn’t read critically enough, or both.

... and that's my two cents