Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hypocrisy Be Damned! SteelerBaby Musn't Obey

Faithful Steeler fan and loyal HuggingHaroldReynolds reader Nathan penned this piece for HHR after the issue caught his attention in a Pittsburgh City Paper article.


Shepard Fairey who created the HOPE image/poster/t-shirt/tattoo idea, etc of President Obama is threatening to sue over the word OBEY.

For those that don't know, Fairey is the man behind the brand for Obey Giant Art and has made a career of taking other’s images and creating new messages and images from them. The inspiration behind what could be considered the most iconic political image recent memory was taken from an Associated Press shot and altered to create a new image. The Associated Press is suing over the image, which to me is idiotic, it is a picture of a pubic figure and it was altered in such a way to become something completely different and convey a new message. The Associated Press is as wrong about HOPE as Obey Giant Art is over OBEY.

Fairey started off his OBEY campaign years ago as a street artist putting up an altered image of Andre the Giant with the tagline “Andre the Giant Has a Posse.” Shortly after this image got some national recognition by being posted on the side of buildings and other highly visible locations nationwide he was approached by Titan Sports, Inc (for those who have been around long enough, that is the company now known as World Wrestling Entertainment), and told to stop using the trademarked name Andre the Giant on the image. Soon after, Fairey changed the tagline to OBEY.

The OBEY image and branding has grown tremendously over the last 15 years. The line has been incorporated into an extremely large and successful clothing line.

Now, this anti-establishment, anti-corporation, former street-cred born and bred artist is attempting to shut down another artist simply for the using of the word OBEY.

In 2005, while the Pittsburgh Steelers were on their way to a 5th Super bowl ring a little known website sprang up that made any tried and true fan of the black and gold smile. That site,, was the brain child of Pittsburgh native and graphic artist Larkin Werner. Originally the site contained a picture of a 70’s era kewpie doll in a knit Steeler’s sweater and was accompanied by a side bar of interesting things that Steelerbaby would say when prompted. A personal favorite in ’05 was “Cowher Power.” The site has grown to include pictures of Steelerbaby with fans, videos and a Q & A section. There is also a section for baby swag, and this is where it gets interesting.

One of the more popular Steelerbaby sound bites is the faintly creepy and demonically toned “Obey Steelerbaby.” So, if you have never been to Pittsburgh you may not realize that everything is not as it seems, the tone, image and statement fit perfectly with the typical Steeler’s fan love for all things black and gold, besides anything eerie coming out of a kewpie doll is inherently funny. Eventually, like any smart and entrepreneurial American, Werner realized that there was a market for a few bucks to be made.

He opened a site and began to sell Steelerbaby gear. Typical stuff, shirts, hats, mugs. One in particular had (stress HAD) the word OBEY above a picture of the beloved little tyke, another just said OBEY STEELERBABY. Recently, Werner has been served with a cease and desist order from Obey Giant Art, Inc. All over the use of the word OBEY.

According to Olivia Perches, Director of Finance, Obey Giant Art, “We have the trademark on ['Obey'], anything with 'Obey' on it they can't have."

I’m not an attorney, but I do have some common sense. So, let me get this straight, a man who has created a career by taking other people’s images and creating a new medium from said images is attempting to shut down another artist for using a word he utilized in a former campaign. Sounds to me like corporate bullying and hypocrisy over the use of a simple word.

Not to mention the fact that Werner has made approximately $70 dollars in the last 3 months over the merchandise in question. This merchandise is not what I would call a threat to the OBEY brand. What this sounds like to me is a petty man who doesn’t like it if someone else plays in his sandbox, intentional or not. Why hasn’t Fairey gone after other people who have co-opted the image in the HOPE campaign? There are plenty of knock off’s around that are making more money then Steelerbaby and are deliberately playing off the intended image. For instance, here are three available designs that incorporate the HOPE image but with a very different intention:

The reason he doesn’t go after pieces like this is due to the fact that the idea and the image has been altered and is drastically different then the original piece of art.

So, instead of focusing on a new campaign, or his own court case, this artist and his company have decided to go after the little guy.

I understand the need to protect one’s ideas and have them trademarked. If Werner and the Steelerbaby crew had made their product look exactly like the OBEY design I would agree that they would need to cease and desist immediately. However, this simply isn’t the case. The Obey Giant Art company is simply spinning their wheels and creating a nonsense case over a simple word.

So, I am planning on putting all of my OBEY shirts and a great cardigan I picked up a few months back deep into my closet and ask you all to do the same. I am asking you to stop buying their product, stop supporting Fairey in his suit against the Associated Press and start sticking up for the little guy.

Werner has taken down the Obey Steelerbaby merchandise from the cafepress site and is not going to object to Obey Giant Arts cease and desist order.

Werner, I say stand up, fight this, make a stink, be heard. There are over 500,000 Steeler fans on Facebook alone. I am pretty sure a vocal group can help you make your case.

And hey, Larkin, since you no longer have the Obey Steelerbaby shirts up, are they considered collector’s items? I know I am ready to fork over $20 bucks to wear one and support you.

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Cotter said...

Legally speaking, it'd be pretty difficult for them to have the word "Obey" trademarked. In order to get a trademark on something, the word/mark has to be inherently distinctive or have some secondary meaning that allows consumers to identify the mark with a specific producer.

That's a really generic term. So unless it has some strong secondary meaning, the PTO wouldn't grant a TM for it.

I'm not saying they don't have it. I'm just saying I'd be surprised if they did.

And frankly, let's be honest, do I believe the Director of Finance's word on legal issues like TM?

No, I don't.

The fact is, what they're probably trying to do here is to show that they're "policing" their mark (if in fact they even have the TM). Because if they don't do that, they can lose the TM protection.

Anyways, lots of legal issues. But like you said, this is likely just a strong armed tactic to get SteelerBaby to stop selling the merch without the case ever going anywhere. Usually the person serving the cease and decist on the little guy expects that they'll just comply. So it won't matter if what they're saying is right or not because it'll never get to a point where that matters.

Anyways, great post! It's sad that this is how the world works sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Great post. You have summed up my thoughts perfectly.

Copyright/TM is a prickly animal. I checked and they actually do have the word "Obey" TM-ed, but what the specifics are I'm not sure, i.e. intended use, marketplace, etc. But as the CP article pointed out, Steelerbaby's intention was never to deceive people into thinking it was s Fairey project, or to somehow latch on to his star (or lactating tit, as would be Steelerbaby's preference).

All in all a pretty silly act of aggression. Especially from a person who has a 15+ year career of "appropriating" and uncredited "points of departure" of others' work.

Watch your back Fairey. Doom, indeed, wears a diaper.