Street Art and Copyright : Is street art automatically protected by copyright law?

Street Art et droit d’auteur : le street art est-il automatiquement protégé par la loi sur le droit d'auteur ?

Street Art and Copyright

It often seems that street art is a subject that everyone has an opinion about. For general public it’s usually a hate-love relationship, and for the art world this movement is still a work in progress, where not everyone has fully acknowledged it as a substantial part of the artistic movements of the XNUMXst century. To speak about street art and its copyright, one must start with reflecting on the history and the development of street art.

The movement of street art in a sense how we know it now with graffitis, tags, throw-ups, etc, appeared in the united States during the 1960s, but it was in the 1970s that it experienced real awakening, when spray paint cans that were easy to buy and easy to use on the go were introduced in the market. Groups of young people were forming crews and were writing all over the city. At this time, New York City subway trains were completely covered in graffiti. It’s at this peak that people started to associate graffiti as a form of vandalism, something with negative connotation, violence and destruction.

However, in the 1980s graffiti slowly started to be accepted in the art world as an art form, not just an act of vandalism. Street artists started to paint and work not only in the streets, but also in their studios, creating canvases for art shows. Nonetheless, until nowadays street art is still often regarded as just another act of mischief.

So, knowing that street artists create their works in public space, accessible to anyone at any time for free, but not owning the walls that they use as canvases, do their works are still protected by copyright as traditional art? The answer is complex for numerous reasons. Firstly, the artists usually work on the walls that are someone else’s property, hence legally it is breaking the law.

Secondly, many of the artists like to keep their identity secret, making the public think that their work is free to use and reproduce, or even take away, because no one take credit for it publicly.

Thirdly, street art is ephemeral. It is found in a natural environment, subjected to disappear over time naturally or just be taken by someone.

This question regarding copyright is more for lawyers to answer than art historians as the topic holds many layers of law and legal interpretations. Moreover, each country in the world have different copyright laws, making it difficult to answer the questions unambiguous. However, even with different laws in place, we can affirm that street art, like any traditional art form, is automatically protected by the copyright law. Why?

As any other painting or sculpture, a graffiti is an intellectual property of its creator, hence protected by the copyright law. Intellectual property includes many categories of intangible creations of the human intellect. It should be a result of a creative activity, where the author expresses his vision. It should be an original piece of work, as well. Clearly, graffiti meets the criteria and should be protected by copyright law.

This discussion about the subject of street art and copyright has risen especially in last decade, when works of street art are now selling at auctions and galleries for six-figure sums, sometimes even sold with house attached. The recognition of street art as a movement within the art scene and rising prestige has made the shift in thinking.

In recent years, more and more we hear about cases, where street artworks have been illegally taken away from their original urban environment to sell for big numbers, however there are precedents that show - the copyright law is on the side of the street artists. In 2014, Banksy’s artwork “Art Buff” was ripped from the wall in Folkestone and shipped to the US to sell at an art fair in Miami, valued at almost half million euros. A lengthy legal battle took place, but in the result the work had to be returned to its city and put back at its original public space.

This example shows clearly that people still look at street art as their own property, because it's easily accessible. But at the same time, with the rising hype of graffiti and stencil art people see it as a possible way to get some easy money, rather than look at it as an act of vandalism. Although Banksy’s and other street artists’ works are still being stolen from their walls and sold at auctions for thousands and thousands of euros, the case of “Art Buff” teaches that it can be stopped. And street art can stay in its designated space for the public to appreciate.

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