Sharon Urias, Esq.
Over the past few years, graffiti artists, also referred to as street artists, have started filing copyright lawsuits over the alleged improper and unauthorized use of their work. Sometimes the works in question are reproduced on clothing, other times the works are featured in advertising and marketing campaigns. While many artists claim the unauthorized use of their work makes them look like corporate sell-outs and diminishes their “street cred,” which is an important factor in their line of work, there are also financial considerations involved.
A well-known street artist known as Rime has filed lawsuits against prominent designers Vince Camuto and Moschino, both which ended in settlements. Rime’s dispute with Vince Camuto centered around the designer’s use of four different murals in an ad campaign. Rime asserted Vince Camuto exploited his work, brand and persona by using his art as a centerpiece in the ad campaign. The Moschino lawsuit involved the designer copying one of Rime’s murals onto a dress worn by pop star Katy Perry on the red carpet at the Met Gala. The terms of the settlements were not disclosed.
Most recently, a Los Angeles based street artist by the name of Revok threatened to sue clothing retailer H&M for its use of one of his murals in a filmed advertisement. In response to Revok’s threat, H&M responded by asserting Revok had no copyright to the mural because he had committed criminal trespass and vandalism when he created the mural in question in Brooklyn. Suddenly, H&M had a public relations nightmare on its hands when other renowned and popular street artists called for a boycott of H&M and its products. Within days of the incident, H&M announced that it was going to work out a deal with Williams.
It should be noted that street artists are not guaranteed to have successful copyright infringement challenges and are not assured to receive settlements. Renowned muralist Maya Hayuk sued Starbucks in 2015 for the coffee giant’s alleged misuse of Hayuk’s murals of geometric patterns in an advertising campaign. Starbucks fought the suit and a year later, a federal judge sided with Starbucks and stated that the images used by Starbucks were not similar enough to the protected elements of Hayuk’s images. The court explained that even though the two sets of works can be said to share the use of overlapping colored rays in a general sense, such elements fall into the unprotectable category of ideas in the public domain.
These lawsuits and legal entanglements demonstrate that, 1) graffiti and street artists appear to have viable copyrights in their work, even when it is done in a public forum without the permission of property owners, and 2) businesses who reproduce those works or use them in advertising and marketing campaigns need to look closely at whether clearances are warranted prior to use.
If you are an artist concerned that your work has been subjected to copyright infringement, or if you are a business or entrepreneur considering reproducing or using graffiti, street art, or murals, Sharon Urias can assist with addressing your copyright concerns and needs.
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