Graffiti has always been considered an interesting form of creative expression, with the ability to convey socio-political sentiments through design and visual art. Owing to the context of their art work, graffiti artists have almost always been associated with public nuisance and vandalism. That perception is changing now, with an increasing number of graffiti artists being praised, supported and encouraged by ordinary people, and government-funded projects seeking to employ the creative services of these artists in either making a statement or transforming an urban space.
With the recognition that graffiti is an art form and its increasingly favourable reception comes the risk of appropriation — something that a number of graffiti artists have become victim to. Can these artists claim ownership over their work and subsequently sue those who make unauthorized copies?
Do street artists have rights?
In order to be eligible for copyright protection, the work in question must be original in that it needs to be minimally creative and fixed in a tangible and durable medium (you can learn more about the ingredients of copyright here and what originality means here). Street art is typically found on walls, and so, arguably satisfies the essential requirements to attract copyright protection.
The problem, however, is not the medium’s nature, but its ownership. With graffiti, a great deal of the work has been made on walls that do not actually belong to the artist — they are either part of someone else’s private property or are publicly owned, making it a form of vandalism in many countries and cultures. When the initial premise or the foundation of a work of art or invention is illegal, it becomes difficult and legally almost impossible to bring the protection of authorship into the picture.
So graffiti cannot be copyrighted because it is illegal?
Graffiti is not always illegal, and can be copyrighted in its avatar as sanctioned street art. It may help to draw this distinction between graffiti and street art — the former being understood as being displayed on private or public property without permission, and the latter having been requested by an organization or group of people. The former might still run the risk of being associated with the damage of property, but the latter might very well be considered art in public spaces.
Why should we be talking about this anyway?
Ownership and protection are terms that come into play when there are instances of copying, plagiarism and misappropriation — all of which have steadily crept into the world of graffiti and street art as well. For instance, the work of Miami street artist David Anasagasti (or Ahol Sniffs Glue) has been used without his permission by apparel brand American Eagle for its advertising campaigns. Graffiti artists Argentines Franco Fasoli (also known as Jaz), Nicolas Romero (who works under the name Ever) and Derek Mehaffey of Canada (who operates under the pseudonyms of Troy Lovegates and Other) sued Hollywood director Terry Gilliam for the unauthorized inclusion of their copyrighted Argentinian street mural in his movie The Zero Theorem. Chrysler was sued by the artists of a mural in the Bronx, when the mural was found to have been used extensively in a Fiat ad in 2011.
Most recently, Jeremy Scott and Moschino settled the copyright lawsuit filed against them by graffiti artist Joseph Tierney or ‘Rime’. According to Rime’s complaint, “Defendants Moschino and [Moschino’s creative director] Jeremy Scott — two household names in high fashion — inexplicably placed Rime’s art on their highest-profile apparel without his knowledge or consent.”
Is this a problem in India?
A great deal of what we see in India these days is sanctioned street art, which implies that there are acknowledgments and (presumably) paperwork in place protecting the integrity of the artist’s work as well as their claim to the same. Having said that, we could see cases where garment or keepsake manufacturers have claimed collaboration and have either appropriated or copied the work of these street artists, without their prior permission. It is becoming increasingly important for street artists to start prioritizing discussions of their legal rights, particularly if others have begun to recognize the potential to monetize, reproduce and distribute their work in other mediums.