Shepard Fairey Sentenced for Destroying Documents


The US District Court in Manhattan fined Shepard Fairey $25,000 and sentenced him to two years of probation and 300 hours of community service this morning for tampering with evidence related to his 2009 copyright suit. Fairey pleaded guilty to one count of criminal contempt in February for destroying and fabricating evidence. Prosecutors had asked for the maximum six-month prison sentence.

Fairey, a graphic artist known for his graffiti-inspired street art, released a statement after his sentencing, saying, “My wrong-headed actions, born out of a moment of fear and embarrassment, have not only been financially and psychologically costly to myself and my family, but also helped to obscure what I was fighting for in the first place—the ability of artists everywhere to be inspired and freely create art without reprisal.”

The civil case that eventually spawned the criminal charge centered on Fairey’s 2008 “HOPE” poster of Barack Obama. The Associated Press claimed that the artist had committed copyright infringement by basing the poster on an AP photograph of the then-presidential candidate and demanded payment.

Fairey initially claimed that he had used a cropped photo of Obama with actor George Clooney as his model, before retracting the claim and admitting he had also destroyed documents that linked him to the AP photograph. The artist then filed a lawsuit against the AP in 2009, claiming that his appropriation of the photo constituted fair use under US copyright law because he had transformed it into a new work. The AP countersued for copyright infringement, but the two parties settled out of court under undisclosed terms in 2011, before the court could weigh Fairey’s assertion.

The Department of Justice brought the contempt charge against Fairey based on his initial lies. Federal prosecutor Daniel Levy said, “Some deprivation of liberty is necessary. Anything else sends a terrible message to the world.”

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt, for his part, was eager to put the events of the past four years behind him. “After spending a great amount of time, energy and legal effort, all of us at The Associated Press are glad this matter is finally behind us. We hope this case will serve as a clear reminder to all of the importance of fair compensation for those who gather and produce original news content,” he said in a statement.