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?
About the Photo
The posters that popped up across the country were based on Alkhateeb's photo, but had the TIME magazine logo and branding removed and had added the word "socialism" at the bottom. Alkhateeb wasn't responsible for these changes - a yet-to-be-identified person is behind the posters' creation.
In fact, you may be surprised to hear that the Obama/Joker image wasn't even meant to be political commentary, according to Alkhateeb. That's quite ironic given that it has now embroiled him in this intense political debate. Instead, says the college student, he was just messing around after discovering an online tutorial that explained how to "Jokerize" photographs using Adobe Photoshop. It seems that Alkhateeb doesn't particularly care about politics himself, having chosen to abstain from voting in November since he felt his state (Illinois) was already sewn up and decided before the polls opened. His views on Obama aren't particularly one-sided either. Alkhateeb favors the democratic viewpoint on foreign relations but tends to side with Republicans on domestic issues.
In a recent L.A. Times profile on Alkhateeb, it's reported that the photo generated over 20,000 page views 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.
This wouldn't be the first time Flickr got involved with political censorship. Hawk also blogged about how the site deleted the account of a user named Shepherd Johnson after he made critical comments about Obama in the Official White House Photostream back in June.
So is this yet another case of Flickr engaging in censorship? Or are they legitimately protecting themselves from these "copyright infringement" claims? (Flickr won't comment on this since a company policy prohibits them from discussing issues surrounding one particular user.)
What do you think about this issue? Share your thoughts in the comments.