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OBEYing Fair Use

In my writing class, Professor Kalm mentioned the classic graphic Andre The Giant has a posse, later coined OBEY Giant. I have always been fascinated with that graphic. Maybe I channeled my inner-child as a 1980’s wrestling fan. Maybe I just really liked the Princess Bride. I knew the design was cool, so much so that I even had a T-shirt of the graphic in my teenage years. When I wore it in high school, many were perplexed. It wasn’t classified as a wrestling T-shirt, but almost a kind of art. Girls thought it was weird, but almost everyone I know has heard of the proclaimed “Eighth Wonder of The World.”

Creator Shepard Fairey’s Andre graphic was posted all over the world. It was the type of “word of mouth (for lack of a better term)” that graphics don’t see every day. The one thing I always wondered was if Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) ever sued Fairey for any copyright issues. After all, I’m sure the initial photo of Andre was property of the WWF. They did and this caused Fairey to stop using the name Andre The Giant and later modified the look of the graphic to what we now know as OBEY Giant.

Steal This Art

Fairey is often criticized for using copyrighted artwork into his own works and failing to provide credit for the work used. Graphic designer Baxter Orr did his own take on Fairey’s work, called Protect, with the Obey Giant face covered by a respiratory mask. Once he started selling prints as his own work, Orr received a cease-and-desist order from Fairey’s attorneys, telling him to pull Protect from sale because it violates Fairey’s trademark. Fairey threatened to sue, calling Orr a “bottom feeder” and “parasite.”

While I certainly enjoyed his designs, does Fairey really have the right to complain? After all, he did use photos of Andre the Giant and later Barack Obama that were not his. He used these photos to enhance his art and messaging. While Orr’s idea was uncreative, perhaps he felt the same in his intention. In the days of advanced technologies and people being empowered to remix songs and editing videos, can the same apply to art? Is this piracy? I think not and as American academic and political activist, Larry Lessig says, “creativity is being strangled by the law.” He goes on to say that the television and music that his generation had is now being created by today’s generation. The film, Steal This Film II, reiterates this thought process too. The read/write culture enables us to recreate media to say things differently. I do not see this as “stealing,” but expressing yourself through another person’s art. What if library’s decided not to let us take out books for writing papers and learning? What’s the point of creating them in the first place?

For profitable gain (which Orr did do), building your bank account off someone else’s creation is wrong. However, if you have a passion for what you do and are paying an homage to someone’s work, who are we to say who’s a parasite and uncreative? Did Shepard Fairey really intend on sending a message or did his tracing of an Andre the Giant photo catch lighting in a bottle that was interpreted differently by the masses? Did he intend on creating the OBEY graphic to make money? Maybe so, maybe not, but we remember it and it is still considered art.

Works Cited:

  • 1990s, The Early. “Andre the Giant Has a Posse.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 21 July 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obey_Giant>.
  • “Module 9 – The Search.” The Interactive Voice. Web. 21 July 2010. <http://interactivevoice.blogspot.com/2010/07/module-9-search.html>.
  • Steal This Film II. Web. 21 July 2010. <http://www.stealthisfilm.com/>.
  • “Larry Lessig on Laws That Choke Creativity | Video on TED.com.” TED: Ideas worth Spreading. Web. 21 July 2010. <http://www.ted.com/talks/larry_lessig_says_the_law_is_strangling_creativity.html>..

Find Inspiration, Not Theft

“In West Virginia yesterday, a man was arrested for stealing several blow-up dolls. Reportedly, police didn’t have any trouble catching the man because he was completely out of breath.”Conan O’ Brien

If that quote teaches us anything, it’s that crime doesn’t pay. The same holds true in the creative realm of design.

In today’s digital age, stealing material is viewed subjectively. Take arts and entertainment for example. Music and piracy has been an issue, from the days of bootlegging a concert to Napster at the height of its fame. Even in the entertainment world, the stealing of a comedian’s jokes has been a long standing issue, from Robin Williams to Dane Cook. Just Google or YouTube search Carlos Menica. The results range from his infamy in stealing jokes to unabashed hatred towards the man. In a world where people have traded ethics for personal gain, do they exist in the design world?

There are ethics in design. They are the same that exist in different avenues of creativity. If I were to tune out my peers and legendary artists that came before me, and still be able to produce great work, then I would be a creative genius (I wish). I use Delicious to bookmark my inspirations. I need to get inspired and learn from people that came before me. I believe in viewing various concepts to encourage a design, though with my own spin on things. After all, how many musicians were inspired by The Beatles and/or Elvis? Sure, there were a few blatant copycats along the way, but they also helped influence some legendary individuals.

Get Inspired

Inspiration may sound like “borrowing” for some, but there are several sites that encourage sharing of designs and have sections specifically for inspiring designers. Sites like You The Designer and the American Institute for Graphic Arts (AIGA) are great examples. Speaking of AIGA, official ethical practices in design have actually been in place. In an earlier post, I talked about personal ethics in a job. AIGA’s original idea, known as The Living Principles of Design focuses on not only that concept, but provides an online community to share best practices, tools and ideas for designers of all ilks.

Just like the code of ethics and rules on academic plagiarism (that we usually don’t have time to read), you have to understand what you are getting into when you use a concept. Be sure to credit your inspirations. Not everything I’ve done for clients has been totally original, but its important to establish your own ethical boundaries.

Works Cited:

Research: Trading Ethics for a Design?

Could a Democrat work for a Republican? Could the Yankees support the Red Sox? Could you work for a client in a campaign you don’t believe in? The latter does come up in design. Certain design jobs do affect a person’s set of ethics.

This form of design ethics was raised by designer David Airey. What if you have to design a product you don’t believe in? What if I designed promotions for the aforementioned Republican Party and was a Democrat or vice versa? What if I designed for an alcohol company and I had a loved one with alcoholism issues?  Airey poses this scenario,

I believe in how the fashion industry is twisting reality and contributing to eating disorders in many young women, but if I was approached by a fashion model to launch a portfolio site, I don’t think I’d have many sleepless nights. Is that just me being hypocritical?

I say no. Design is a passion, but also a job that people use to make a living. Unfortunately, I am not in the position to be overly selective in which jobs I accept.

Citizen Designer

Perhaps the most socially irresponsible work is the over-produced, typographic stunts that serve no real function, speak only to other designers and the cultural elite, and through opulence and uselessness revel in a level of conspicuous consumption that glorifies financial excess. Michael Rock

Like Michael Rock, Susan S. Szenasy talks also about designers becoming socially responsible or “citizen designers.” I find that a lot of the people talking about being a “citizen designer” are rich with experience and have the time/finances to do so.  Has some design moved away from the arts and toward commercialization? Of course it has. I do not shy away from that, as I was an Advertising and Promotions major as an undergrad student. I would, one day, like to be apart a greater social cause, in time and experience.

Surviving & Staying Ethical

David Airey mentions working with non-profit agencies on cause you do support to counterbalance the job you may not fully support. I have worked full time at a non-profit agency and several agencies with freelance projects. Ennis Carter founded the organization, Design for Social Impact, specifically to address the design needs of non-profit and community based organizations. As Carter explains, “We strive for a fair and just society in the best way we know how – through beauty, story and service to the community.” The pay on this level can be little to non-existent, but the levels of appreciation my non-profit clients have shown me is tremendous.

Are You Experienced?

I have learned to pick my spots with jobs. If a client wants me to design something hateful or bigoted (if so, then I should question the clients I attract), I will turn it down. On the other hand, would I be able to work for a political campaign for an opposing party I support? I would find it to be a unique challenge and not rule out the job. As designer Adrian Shaughnessy says, “I like the fight, and I get satisfaction from winning over a difficult client.”

I’m sure a young George Clooney’s ideal acting choice was not the guest spot on The Facts of Life. Some call taking a job you don’t believe in unethical or “selling out” for the sake of a dollar. When I have the resources to make a difference, feel free to call me that. In the meantime, income aside, I see it as way to build experience. I look at these jobs as a true challenge, so when a project comes along that I truly feel passionate about, I will be more than prepared. If you toil enough at your craft, sooner or later you will be able have that artistic freedom and make your own rules.

Works Cited:

  • Fisher, Jeff. “11.” The Savvy Designer’s Guide to Success: Ideas and Tactics for a Killer Career. Cincinnati, Ohio: How Design, 2005. 171-72. Print.
  • Shaughnessy, Adrian. “7.” How to Be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2005. 104-05. Print.
  • Heller, H. J. ., Bolesław Bierut, and William Drenttel. Looking Closer Critical Writings on Graphic Design. New York: Allworth, 2007. Print.
  • “Ethics and Sustainability: Graphic Designers’ Role.” AIGA | the Power of Design. Web. 06 July 2010. <http://powerofdesign.aiga.org/content.cfm/szenasy>.
  • “Responsible Design? (1/2).” Sketchblog. Web. 07 July 2010. <http://sketchblog.guava.nl/2007/05/01/responsible-design/>.
  • “How Ethical Are Your Design Practices?” David Airey, Graphic Designer. Web. 06 July 2010. <http://www.davidairey.com/how-ethical-are-your-design-practices/>.