5 Iconic Pieces Of Pop Art Saddled With Legal Woes

Pop artists absorb and borrow from popular culture. Likewise, pop culture spreads the images of pop art through mass reproduction, but is any of this legal? Recently strict copyright laws and our obsession to protect intellectual property and the money earned by our ideas, have forced artists to incorporate the medium of policy. Will copyright laws eventually smother pop art completely or will they do more good by protecting originality and integrity?

1. The “Hope” poster 2008- Shepard Fairey

Upon the recommendation of a publicist, Shepard Fairey created and printed 350 posters with the text, “Progress” centered at the bottom and the artist’s signature symbol, “OBEY” printed inside the Obama campaign logo. These prints sold for $45 each within fifteen minutes and were later traded on Ebay for $3,000-$10,000. The second launching of 3000 posters featured with word “Hope” with the original campaign logo.

Although Shepard Fairey received instant acclaim for this work, the First Amendment couldn’t protect this legendary graphic designer, street artist, and creator of the OBEY campaign. Fairey served community service, was put on probation for two years, and paid $250,000 in fines after lying to courts and deleting his computer records which proved he had manipulated a copyrighted AP photograph to create his image.

2. “Gold Marilyn Monroe” 1962- Andy Warhol

Within the year of her controversial death, Warhol created this painting of Monroe based on a 1953 publicity still for the film, Niagara. Warhol famously combined the media of photography with painting using silk screen printing on his canvases. Unlike Shepard Fairey’s secrecy about using the AP photograph, here Warhol blatantly chose to use a photograph known to millions, undermining the uniqueness and authenticity characteristic of traditional portraiture. He intentionally presented Monroe as an infinitely reproducible image.  

3. “Drowning Girl” 1963- Roy Lichtenstein

The source for this work is “Run for Love!,” the melodramatic lead story in DC Comics’ Secret Love #83, from 1962.  Lichtenstein shortened the caption from “I don’t care if I have a cramp!” to the ambiguous “I don’t care!” and changed the boyfriend’s name from Mal to Brad. Lichtenstein’s “Sleeping Girl,” another abstraction from comic artist, Tony Abruzzo, sold last year for $44.9 million. Predating Photoshop, the artist traced the original image from a projection. Even if Abruzzo or DC Comic ever went after Lichtenstein for this, he wouldn't have any evidence to erase from his laptop.

4. “32 Campbell's Soup Cans” 1962- Andy Warhol

Immediately after finishing “Gold Marilyn Monroe,” Warhol created the Campbell’s Soup Cans, one painting to represent each of the 32 varieties of Campbell’s Soup. While Warhol’s cans were on exhibit in L.A. a nearby gallery stacked some real soup cans, advertising, "Get the real thing for only 29 cents a can." Warhol’s cans flopped. At first, dealer, Irving Blum, sold five of the paintings separately at $100 each, but later bought them back in order to sell the entire series for $3,000.  After acquiring them for a third time, in 1996, Blum sold the series to the Museum of Modern Art for $15 million.  

Why Campbell's soup? Warhol explained, "I used to have the same lunch every day, for twenty years." I wonder what he would have eaten for lunch if he’d lived to see any of the $15 million. Because his financial success was delayed, Andy Warhol would have never been able to afford the $250,000 in fines accrued by Shepard Fairey. Perhaps this is why charges were never made or perhaps it was the liberal attitude of the sixties and, of course, the free advertising.  

5. “Guerrillero Heroico” 1960- Alberto Korda

Although Korda took this photograph of Che Guevara at a funeral in 1960, it remained unseen in his private collection until 1967, as the CIA was closing in on Che’s whereabouts. As a friend of the revolution, Korda declined payment for his photo when just two copies were first acquired and has still never received a dime as the image continues to be reproduced. However, Korda’s integrity was not compromised when Smirnoff used “Guerrillero Heroico” in a commercial. Maintaining that Che would have objected to the use of his portrait to promote the use of alcohol, Korda sued Lowe Lintas and Rex Features, the company that supplied the photograph to the vodka distillery. Lintas and Rex retorted that the image was in the public domain. The final result was an out-of-court settlement for $50,000 awarded to Korda, who then donated the sum to the Cuban health care system. Thanks to the ideals of this artist, policy worked to protect his integrity and that of his subject.

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Angie Hartley

an expat artist and teacher living in South Korea

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