This account is taken from a site hosted by Joy Garnett:
NY artist Joy Garnett makes paintings based on found photographs gathered from the mass media [more info]. In January 2004 she had a solo exhibition of a series of paintings called “Riot,” which featured the figure in extreme emotional states. One of the paintings, Molotov, was based on an uncredited image found on the web that turned out to be a fragment of a 1979 photograph by Susan Meiselas.
When Meiselas and her lawyer learned of the painting, they sent a cease-and-desist letter to Garnett accusing her of “pirating” the photo. They demanded she remove the image of Molotov from her website, and that she sign a retroactive licensing agreement that would sign over all rights to the painting to Meiselas, and to credit Meiselas on all subsequent reproductions of Molotov. Garnett offered a compromise: she agreed to give Meiselas a credit line on her website, but refused to sign a “derivative work” agreement, claiming that her painting was a transformative fair use of the Meiselas photo. Meiselas’ attorney, Barbara Hoffman, turned down the offer and instead threatened Garnett with an injunction, demanding that Garnett comply with all of the demands as well as pay $2,000 in retroactive licensing fees.
Garnett pulled the image of Molotov from her website, lest it result in the entire site being pulled down (cf: a “Take-Down order”). She never signed over the rights to her work, but she was not pursued once the image of Molotov was removed from her site.
Before Garnett removed the image from her site, fellow artists who were following her story on, (a not-for-profit organization with a website and list serve dedicated to new media art), grabbed the jpeg in solidarity. First they copied the html and created mirror pages on their own websites; then they started making anti-copyright, or “copyfight” agitprop based on the painting, resulting in many derivative works including collages, animations, etc. Several media and copyright reform blogs ran the story, and soon it spread globally, along with the images. The story was translated into Italian, Czech, Chinese, Spanish, French, and Catalan.
Two years later, (April 2006), Garnett and Meiselas were invited to speak together at the COMEDIES OF FAIR U$E symposium at the New York Institute for the Humanities, organized by Lawrence Weschler and hosted by New York University (click here for the podcasts). They had the opportunity to meet the day before over a cup of tea and clear up some misunderstandings. They went on the next day to present their stories in tandem at the conference. Their panel presentations were then re-edited and published in Harper’s, February ‘07 (see here).
See also this video Painting Mass Media and the Art of Fair Use – about the entire controversy.
The series of websites, artistic interventions and debates is a fascinating commentary on the politics of fair use, the appropriate use of images, the power of reproduction, the weight of context, the ethics of display, and the importance of history.


  1. Good to see this post, I have used the Joywar case in an anthropology course on photography that I have taught to great effect. It is an interesting case to contrast with the controversy over the Obama poster by Shepard Fairey. This has been covered in many places from NPR’s FreshAir
    to the Huffington Post
    (, etc.
    What is interesting in this case is how in this instance Fairey, the photographer Mannie Garcia and AP are all entangled (not to mention the president and his image); and how Fairey launched a countersuit.

  2. This is certainly an interesting and important case. In an age when the source and context of images get more and more blurry, these kinds of cases are something to ponder about. What makes it even more interesting is the number of authors (anonymous and known) connected to the image. These different versions of the image form an amazing puzzle of layers, leaving the question of ‘true authorship’ unanswered. Here are some of the thoughts invoked in my mind by the case.
    There are a number of layers to the reality (connected mostly to authorship) of this image. At first we are able to define two:
    1) The layer of the photograph taken by Susan Meiselas
    2) The layer of the painting by Joy Garnett
    Then, as we look into it, there is the added layer of ‘true reality’ – of the man the original photo was taken of. Also, we can define (as a kind of a sub-layer) the layer that is actually the origin of Garnett’s painting: the anonymous image (that is a part of Meiselas’s photograph, but not the whole photograph) by an anonoumous ‘author’ who has cropped Meiselas’s photo and uploaded it.
    1) The layer of the man depicted (Pablo Arauz)
    2) The layer of the photograph taken by Susan Meiselas
    3) The layer of the image found in the Internet by Garnett, of which author (modificator) is unknown
    4) The layer of the painting by Joy Garnett
    After the beginning of ‘Joywar’ we can also add the layer of different new modifications by other artists connected to Also, we should take into consideration the numerous (anonymous) authors who have used/modified the image in Nicaragua (either as murals, illustrations or other). Although these images do not connect directly to Garnett’s painting, it is highly likely that the ‘legendaryness’ of the photograph increased the chances of Garnett’s encounter with the image.
    1) The layer of the man depicted (Pablo Arauz)
    2) The layer of the photograph taken by Susan Meiselas
    3) The layer of modifications used in Nicaragua (authors unknown)
    4) The layer of the image found in the Internet by Garnett, of which author (modificator) is unknown
    5) The layer of the painting by Joy Garnett
    6) The layer of modifications connected to (several authors)
    Here we see that the number of authors connected to this particular image have already increased immensely. But, as the ‘original authorship’ – who does the image belong to? Does it belong to Meiselas, who was the first one to take the image? Or does it belong to Pablo Arauz, the subject in the image?
    If we insist that the crucial part in an image is the reality it depicts – or context as Meiselas puts it – how come Meiselas has more right to it than Arauz? And if we consider artistic creation as the more important part – does Garnett have more right to the image than the incognito graffiti artists in Nicaragua? Or can we just name it a case of joint authorship and leave it be?
    All in all this is a fascinating case and both the sides of Meiselas and Garnett are relevant. It is nice to see that both of them have been able to express their viewpoint and they have managed to settle the issue without much blood being spilled.

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