Then, in October 2009, Fairey admitted to fabricating evidence: making it appear as if he had based the poster on an AP photograph of Obama alongside actor George Clooney, when he had actually used an AP picture of Obama alone.

The distinction is important because fair use of a copyrighted work can be determined, in part, by how much the work is altered in the creation of a new piece. Fairey’s lawyers, led by the executive director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford University, dropped him as a client after the revelations.

But the case goes on. And Fairey maintains that the underlying question of fair use remains. The artist’s work is about toying with existing images. And blocking that kind of effort would be like “saying you can’t use those words anymore, they’ve already been used,” Fairey told a museum crowd shortly after admitting to the destruction of evidence. “How would we talk to each other?”

It is an argument complicated by Fairey’s sometimes prickly response to other artists borrowing from his own work; two years ago, his lawyers sent a cease-and-desist order to an artist from Austin, Texas who sold prints of Fairey’s Andre the Giant etching with a SARS mask over the mouth.

Fairey maintained that the Texan was no artist, but a mere mimic — a “parasite” who has, separately, hoarded copies of Fairey’s prints in order to drive up the price.

Whatever the controversy, Fairey is undoubtedly a major voice in the push against a copyright law that groups like AS220 find onerous. Crenca says the organization, which has long provided an open, unjuried space, emphasizes art as “process and exchange, as opposed to commodity.” And copyright law, he says, is too often about major corporations exercising a “chokehold” on intellectual property.

So in August, at AS220’s signature Foo Fest event, the group plans to celebrate Fairey’s boundary-pushing work by giving him its first-ever Free Culture Award. Computer whiz Brandon Edens will get a local version of the award.

Crenca, who is hoping the Fairey mural will be complete by the time of the awards ceremony, says AS220 plans to dole out Free Culture prizes every two years — and commission original works by the winners.

That, he said, would mark a major new thrust for AS220, which has long concentrated on providing space for artists, rather than producing work. And the group’s embrace of art production could leave an even greater mark on the city’s cultural life than the mural that inspired it.

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