“Street art” has grown more popular in recent years. Street art, or graffiti art, is unsanctioned art created in public locations, typically on the sides of public and private buildings. It is usually made without consent from the building owner.
With the rise of the public’s interest in street art, it is copied and reprinted on apparel, posters, bags, and other merchandise without artists’ permission. The popularity of graffiti art has struck the debate of whether the artists have intellectual property protection for these works under which the artist can prevent others from copying, removing, selling, or destroying their work.
Many artists have tried asserting copyright protection for their work; however, scholars have criticized the validity of these copyrights of illegally created art. Additionally, most street artists remain anonymous. While the anonymity allows the artists to avoid conflicts with the law and building owner, it makes it impossible to give proper credit for the work.
Another issue is ownership of the copyright. Some critics argue that the copyright should belong solely to the artist. Others argue that the copyright protections should be split between the street artist and the owner of the property where the art was created—the artist retains the right to produce the work, and the property owner retains the right to display the work and sell the physical structure where the art is exhibited. As such, property law and copyright law conflict, and the property owner is given rights that would traditionally belong solely to the artist.
Street artists have limited means of protecting their street art. The fact that the work is illegal prohibits copyright protection as well as a defense to infringement. Conversely, illegality may be used as a defense to copyright infringement claims. Consequently, street art is being copied, reprinted and distributed without the artist’s permission, and the artist does not have much recourse.
If you have any questions or concerns, e-mail or call one of the Conway, Olejniczak & Jerry Intellectual Property Team members at (920) 437-0476.