More than Just “Street Cred”: Why Intellectual Property Rights Matter to Street Artists

By Christine E. Weller*

Perhaps to the dismay of artists executing works in public spaces or on private property, street art and graffiti art has financial value and can be sold at auction without the artist’s consent. This commercialization does not sit well with some artists who engage in street art (illegally at times) as part of a political act, social commentary, or even just  for exposure.  Increasingly, graffiti and street artists who fight the involuntary commercialization of their work are achieving some success.

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Street art near Center for Art Law’s Headquarters in DUMBO. The DUMBO Improvement District commissioned this work with studio Sagmeister & Walsh, in partnership with Two Trees Management Co and the NYCDOT Urban Art Program, who collaborated with renowned Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu, and hand painted by Coby Kennedy.

While the terminology is unclear and used interchangeably, graffiti and street art are distinct.  The two disciplines can inform each other and are interrelated, but they differ in terms of style, method, and theme. Graffiti generally refers to stylized writing such as graffiti tags and visual work placed on buildings without permission.  Street art can take the form of murals or installations incorporated into property, more often with permission (tacit or explicit) of the property owner. Labels aside, street art lawsuits are garnering attention, and have enough merit to have caused several major commercial brands, including American Eagle Outfitters and Sony Music to settle infringement claims.

Since July 2014, there has been a rise in intellectual property (IP) lawsuits filed by street artists. However, a tension in the legal framework exists.  Many still view street art as an illegal act without artistic merit, to which no rights should attach. Notwithstanding the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), U.S. Copyright legislation that protects “moral” rights of artists in their work, there is legal precedent that street art may be destroyed by the property owner or painted over. Cohen v. G&M Realty LP, 988 F. Supp. 2d 212, 214, 109 U.S.P.Q.2d 1869 (E.D.N.Y. 2013)(Five Pointz). Nevertheless, the right to reproduce the street art may be protected by copyright or trademark law as evidenced by the successes in recent copyright cases brought by street artists.  The tension between the street artists’ intellectual property rights and the arrests and vandalism charges they may face is illustrated by the arrest of graffiti artist Cost (Adam Cole) and the recent false arrest lawsuit filed by Richard Pfeiffer, who police allegedly thought was Banksy. Richard Pfeiffer vs. The City of New York et al, No. 152797/2015 (N.Y. Sup Ct. Mar. 21, 2015).

However, with this new wave of successful suits and several forthcoming street art exhibitions, such as Coney Art Walls presented by Jeffrey Deitch in New York and Open Source: Engaging Audiences in Public Spaces presented by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, there is an increased need for both artists and brand owners to appreciate that intellectual property rights can attach to artworks installed or executed in public spaces.

A Legal Primer

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“Trust Your Vision” By gilf! Street art near our headquarters in DUMBO. Plaque next to art states: “As the world becomes more and more competitive it’s easy to lose sight of one’s goals and aspirations. This maze-inspired piece references the difficulty of navigating life, especially in a city like New York.”

Under U.S. Copyright law, legal protection attaches when an original work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” 17 U.S. Code § 102. Originality is a fairly low bar. The holder of the copyright has several exclusive rights in the work for the duration of the copyright (the general rule today is the life of the author plus 70 years for most works), including: reproducing the work, preparing derivative works, distributing copies of the work and displaying the work publicly. Id. § 106.  Authors need not own the physical copy of the original, nor register their works in order for rights to attach.  However, registering the works with the U.S. Copyright Office is a prerequisite to bringing a lawsuit and allows for statutory damages. Id. § 411. In cases where actual damages are hard to prove, registration is a cheap and added benefit to the copyright owner.

Under U.S. Trademark law, protection attaches to words or symbols used to distinguish a good or service in commerce. 15 U.S. Code § 1051 et. seq. Trademark law is used to protect consumers against confusion. A trademark has the potential to last indefinitely provided that it is being used in commerce.  While the use in commerce requirement for trademarks may make it more challenging for an artist to obtain a trademark registration than a copyright registration, a trademark registration with the Patent and Trademark Office may be another source of artists’ rights in their work. Trademark protection may be especially relevant where an artist uses a graffiti or street art tag in commerce.

The Cases

Anasagasti v. American Eagle Outfitters, Inc., No. 1:14-cv-05618 (S.D.N.Y. Jul 23, 2014)

The recent wave of street art infringement cases began in 2014 with the copyright case filed by Cuban-American street artist Ahol Sniffs Glue (David Anasagasti).  In July, Anasagasti filed a copyright infringement action against American Eagle Outfitters for their use of his mural Ocean Grown (Fl) in an advertising campaign. The original mural, located in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, known for its abundance of street art, was commissioned by Ocean Grown Glass Gallery. Wynwood has a vibrant collection of murals, and according to the Miami Times, photographers often seek licenses from the artists before shooting the work. In his complaint, the artist alleges that no permission was sought, and the photography included models posing as if they were painting the murals. American Eagle and Anasagasti privately settled in December.

Hayuk v. Sony Music Entertainment et al, No. 1:14-cv-06659 (S.D.N.Y. Aug 19, 2014)

Well known and successful artist Maya Hayuk also brought and settled a copyright infringement case against musician Sara Bareilles and Sony Music for the unauthorized use of her mural, Chem Trails NYC, in promotional materials for Bareilles’ new album and tour. Previously, Hayuk has sued Urban Outfitters, Target, Coach, and Elle Warner, for the unauthorized use of her artwork.

Miller v. Toll Brothers, Inc., No. 1:15-cv-00322 (E.D.N.Y. Jan 21, 2015)

Luxury  real estate developers Toll Brothers settled with CAM (Craig Anthony Miller) for copyright infringement of his famous Elephant Mural (NYC). The mural was featured prominently in advertisements for luxury condos in Brooklyn that Toll Brothers were developing in the neighborhood where the artwork was originally located. CAM had painted the mural with permission of the property owner in 2009, but it was later painted over in 2013.

Franco Fasoli et al v. Voltage Pictures LLC et al., No. 2:15-cv-00889 (C.D. Cal. Feb 06, 2015)

In February, director Terry Gilliam also found himself at the center of a lawsuit over his film, The Zero Theorem (2013), when he  allegedly infringed a mural by Argentinian street artists Jaz (Franco Fasoli) and Ever (Nicolas Santiago Romero Escalada), along with Canadian artist, Other (Derek Shamus Mehaffey).  In Fasoli, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss.  The Court vacated the hearing date of May 4, 2015 and the parties await a finding on the papers.

Jason Williams et al v. Roberto Cavalli, S.p.A. et al, No. 2:14-cv-06659 (C.D. Cal. Aug 25, 2014)

Finally, in a case involving both copyright and trademark infringement claims, Revok, Reyes, and Steel (Jason Williams, Victor Chapa, and Jeffrey Rubin respectively) filed suit against fashion designer Cavalli for the use of the Plaintiffs’ mural in Cavalli clothing designs. In Williams, the Plaintiffs alleged that pieces of their work were reproduced on Cavalli clothing with their signatures obliterated, and the Cavalli trademark superimposed instead. Plaintiffs argued that this creates a false impression to the consumer as to the origin of the product. In February the court denied a motion to dismiss filed by another named defendant in the suit, Staff USA. Williams v. Cavalli, 113 U.S.P.Q.2d 1944 (C.D. Cal. 2015). This suit is currently pending in the District Court of the Central District of California (Western Division).  It will be interesting to see how the court will treat the trademark argument if the case does not settle.  Many of the artists that have brought suit engage in their own commercial transactions and have carefully policed their brands to control how their work is used and sold to ensure that they are being compensated. The disposition of Williams could establish a new legal tool for street artists.

Going Forward

Defendants in many of these cases, recognized brand owners such as Sony, Cavalli and American Eagle usually find themselves on the other side of IP infringement lawsuits. However, these graffiti and street art cases illustrate that savvy business people and corporations exploring new marketing strategies do not always appreciate that art appearing in “public” spaces is not necessarily in the “public domain.” Copying and distributing street art without permission may constitute infringement and may expose the copier or distributor to significant legal risks.

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“The Owls, Revealing Flight” by Craig Anthony Miller (CAM). Street art near our headquarters in DUMBO.

With the preceding examples in mind, street artists should consider their IP rights when installing work in public spaces, and the public and brand owners should be aware that artwork appearing in public spaces may be protected. Before using street art or graffiti art in marketing or product campaigns, brand owners should consider investigating who holds the rights to those works and seek appropriate permissions.  Going forward, street artists who install work in a public space may consider registering that work with the Copyright Office.  Where an artist uses a specific tag or name for commercial purposes, the artist could consider filing for a trademark.  While the notion of “use in commerce” in the context of street art is still untested, bringing a trademark claim in addition to a copyright infringement claim as in Williams might be an additional remedy for a recognized artist.

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*About the Author: Christine E. Weller is an Associate at Griesing Law, LLC where she focuses her practice on new media, intellectual property, nonprofit, and employment law  matters. She can be reached at (215) 732-3923 or cweller@griesinglaw.com.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Readers are not meant to act or rely on the information in this article without attorney consultation.

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