If it sounds novel to apply copyright to graffiti art, that’s because it is: lawyers who work in this area say it’s not clear anyone has ever tried this in court. Copyright law could be extend to art that's on public walls? It very well may. Anasagasti, a rising star in Miami’s art scene, was the first graffiti artist to seek protection for his work: he hired a lawyer and filed a copyright infringement accusing American Eagle of stealing his work and looking for monetary damages.
Later, a large number of other artists filed suits against various corporations for copyright infringement. One was against the Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli for creating clothing, bags, and shoes that supposedly misappropriated a San Francisco street mural as its background print. All the artists claim their artwork was created legally and registered for copyright. Actually in the United States the requirements to obtain copyright for visual art are very low, there are only two requirements for an artwork to be eligible for copyright: it must be secured in a fixed medium and it must be original.
The lawsuits affirm that corporations have gone beyond any exception, putting the street art to use for their own commercial purposes. As Anasagasti’s suit argues, “In today’s fashion industry, affiliation with artists bearing such ‘street credibility’ is highly required by retail brands for the cultural reputation and access to the profitable youth demographic that it offers.”
How much is that street credibility worth? Both lawsuits spread some light on how could this value be measured. In Anasagasti vs. American Eagle as well as in the San Francisco artists suing Roberto Cavalli the value has been determined on sales data, including its software that tracks exactly how many customers viewed the ads and subsequently made purchases.
It’s not clear why the defendants wouldn’t have reached out to ask the artists for permission to use their work. They must have just thought that urban artists aren’t organized and aren’t going to think about copyright protection.
Nothing could be more antithetical from the “street culture” than luxury and glamour.
Seeking copyright protection may sound like the latest evolution of street art away from its outsider origins, but street artists have always pretended greater control over their work. Street artists don’t earn easily with their works, if corporations take advantages of their works, they deserve to be paid. If somebody's going to profit from this art, copyright may be just the instrument for ensuring that somebody is the artists themselves.
By Francesca Filipo