A revolutionary idea to stop firms cashing in on Che artwork

Lewis Smith
Friday 18 February 2011 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

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An image of Che Guevara that stares out from countless T-shirts and posters is at the centre of a belated copyright claim to protect it from unfettered use by capitalists.

The picture of the Marxist revolutionary, originally in red and black, became one of the most recognisable images of the 20th century and the artist who created it in 1968 has decided it is time to prevent it being used for "crass commercial purposes".

Jim Fitzpatrick originally allowed it to be be used copyright-free by revolutionary groups in Europe but the image has in recent years been appropriated by a host of businesses which would far rather make money than foment rebellions.

Cuban restaurants have used it, as have makers of mugs, baseball caps and even lingerie, and now Mr Fitzpatrick believes it is time to re-exert control over the image, which has come to be regarded as an iconic symbol.

The Irish artist has applied for documentation to prove his ownership of the copyright of the image, showing a grim and determined Guevara wearing a beret with a single star, and said he intends to hand it over to the family of Guevara.

"It's not about making money, it's to make sure that it is used properly... that it's not used for crass commercial purposes," he told Reuters. "I have no problem seeing it on mass numbers of T-shirts. I just don't want someone to be making vast amounts of money from it when that money could be used for a children's hospital in Havana."

He plans to travel to Cuba later this year to meet the family and said: "I simply want to hand it over and give the family the rights to the image that I created and let them decide what to do with it."

Mr Fitzpatrick based the image on a photograph taken by Cuban cameraman Alberto Korda in 1960. The photograph was taken at a memorial march for more than 100 people killed by a bomb blast in Havana the previous day. Guevara, who had helped Fidel Castro to win power in Cuba in the 1959 revolution, was then the Minister of Industry.

In 2000, Mr Korda successfully sued a London advertising agency, Lowe Lintas, and picture agency Rex Features for using a version of the Guevara photograph in an advertising campaign for Smirnoff vodka. He won undisclosed damages, reputed to be close to £30,000, which he donated to Cuba's health system to buy medicine.

Since Mr Korda's death in 2001, his daughter, Diana Diaz, has fought several legal challenges to the use of his photographs by commercial organisations.

His photograph, which he called Heroic Guerrilla, was taken at the same rally that Castro made his "homeland or death" speech. The picture failed to make the following day's newspapers and it was published for the first time seven years later.

Mr Fitzpatrick's original 1968 poster picture was released shortly after Guevara's capture and execution in Bolivia in 1967, where he had travelled to the previous year in the hope of replicating the success of the Cuban revolution.

Such was the poster's symbolic power that for many years it was the focus of angry controversy. In Franco's Spain the distributor was arrested, Soviet governments regarded it with suspicion and in Ireland shops which stocked it faced harassment and threats.

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