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David Rees, Jamba Juice, and the problem with Free\n

First, the set-up: David Rees is a cartoonist who wrote the brilliant "Get Your War On" series that focused on post-9/11 America, the "War on Terror," and other political topics. The strip ended on January 20, 2009, the day George W. Bush left office.In "Get Your War On," Rees uses clip art to create a generic look against which the words of his office workers at first slide glibly in place-"Am I a bad person for loving the Madoff ponzi-scheme scandal?" says a tie-wearing man sitting at his desk covered with just phone and computer. Keep reading the panel and the words take on a wry surreal humor, as the same man goes on: "Seriously, I was mystified by the SEC's compulsive head-up-its-own-ass-edness….until I realized it's obviously staffed by Marxist radicals conspiring to bring down the world financial system!"With his generic deadpan drawings, words, and wit, Rees has developed a signature style. As one can with a Lichtenstein painting, one can spot a Rees cartoon from afar.Now, the complication: Jamba Juice launched a new ad campaign that looks to many like it is inspired, or even produced, by Rees. "Cubicle Picnic" depicts a suit-wearing guy at his desk talking on the phone…about getting some Jamba Juice.On his blog, Rees called the campaign "advertisemo-tainment," and called for a boycott of Jamba Juice. (He later backed down from the boycott idea, as it would hurt employees). He outlines aspects of the ad that both depart from, and closely copy, his style. He states the "the first person to sue Jamba Juice on my behalf CAN KEEP ALL THE MONEY. All I care about it destroying Jamba Juice and their overpriced dumb-ass juices." (His most recent blog post thanks readers for confirming that "jamba" means "fart" in Swahili.)Rees' half-pissed, half-amused campaign (he is also trying to convince everyone to drink wine, or juice for adults) has elicited this statement from Jamba Juice:In the spirit of promoting Jamba's message of summer bliss we specifically chose Tom Tierney-created clip art images to illustrate the state of office bliss-less-ness we were hoping to alleviate through our products. The Summer Bliss campaign has been running since May 25th using these stylized images to promote a light-hearted message of summer fun.We understand there has been some misunderstanding about the Summer Bliss campaign artwork and the comic strip created by David Rees due to the use of these clip art images. Jamba Juice would like to expressly communicate that the Summer Bliss promotion was not intended to imply any affiliation with Mr. Rees, Mr. Rees' endorsement of Jamba Juice and its products, or Jamba Juice's endorsement of Mr. Rees' work.Rees acknowledges that clip art is in the public domain, but claims, convincingly, that Jamba Juice stole his word balloon technique and general sensibility.What do we make of this petit mal conflagration? It brings up interesting copyright issues, to be sure. But it is also brings up the problem with the currently popular logic that one should give away one's art or intellectual property for free, and "monetize" (what a horrible word) it later. I am thinking now of Chris Anderson's argument in Free: The Future of A Radical Price.Rees, who takes his indie cred seriously, was particularly concerned that his fans would perceive him as having "sold out" to Jamba Juice. He felt compelled to call attention to the fact that he did not and would not sell the rights to his work to a major corporation. There is value, aesthetic and cultural if not financial, in securing the borders around one's art.I value Rees' work and I want him to have the time to continue to do it, as unfettered by commercial concerns as possible. If he does not want to "sell out" (a term that Free pretty much authorizes as the only way to go, according to this logic), yet his cartoons are beautifully uploaded and indexed for us on his ad-free website, can he still find ways to continue to support himself off his art? That is the muddly crux of the issue, for me at least.
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