Los Angeles residents recently began seeing a new sort of Obama poster plastered across their city. Instead of promoting ‘hope,’ these posters feature U.S. President Barack Obama wearing the Joker’s clown makeup from the Batman movie ‘The Dark Knight.’ Even those outside of L.A. have likely seen this image somewhere as it soon took on a viral nature, appearing both online and in other cities across the country. The politically charged (and rather disturbing) photo serves as a counterpoint to the prolific and iconic ‘hope’ posters that became popular during Obama’s campaign. Regardless of which side you favor, one thing can be said about this photo: it definitely grabs your attention.
But now, according to the photo’s creator, Firas Alkhateeb, a 20-year-old college student from Chicago, the image has been removed from photo-sharing website Flickr due to ‘copyright infringement concerns.’ Really? Is that why? Or is Flickr engaging in political censorship? In fact, you may be surprised to discover that the Obama/Joker image wasn’t even meant to be political commentary, according to Alkhateeb. Instead, says the college student, he was just messing around after discovering an online tutorial that explained how to ‘Jokerize’ photographs using Adobe Photoshop.
In a recent L.A. Times profile on Alkhateeb, it’s reported that the photo generated over 20,000 pageviews during the time it was hosted on the photo-sharing website Flickr.com. However, as of last Friday, Flickr removed the photo from their site. Why? Alkhateeb says he received an email from the company stating it had to be taken down due to ‘copyright infringement concerns.’ (Apparently, TIME magazine wasn’t too happy seeing their brand associated with this sort of political commentary.)
What About Free Speech?
But isn’t this sort of political commentary, political parody in fact, protected as a form of free speech? Noted photographer and blogger Thomas Hawk thinks it is, citing a precedent for fair use (Folsom v Marsh) which states ‘if you produce something that is transformative, and not derivative, then it’s fair use.’ Although Hawk isn’t a lawyer, he may be right on this one. Says Corynne McSherry, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit that defends digital rights, Alkhateeb has a strong fair use defense if he was ever sued. ‘You really want to think twice about going after a political commenter,’ she noted.
Honestly, I do not fault flickr for making their decision. Free speech is and always be used as a double edged sword in this country. Obviously, the issue is one that flickr deals with on a daily basis, I would assume. However, I can’t think of any companies off the top of my head that would be extremely keen on being the martyr for free speech in present day American society…Especially, when the whole issue is completely centered around the President and the US Gov’t. The story is already a topic of discussion, I can’t imagine the mess that would have ensued if flickr had left the photo up, rather than take it down. In the end, I would have to go ahead and categorize this as a simple case of preemptive damage control.