Clothing lines, advertising companies, and even galleries have been taking and using graffiti art in their campaigns and exhibits without asking for permission. Does anyone else see the irony here? As backwards and as fucked up as the situation may be, the premise for this debate has been set, with strong arguments from both sides.

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On the one hand graffiti is in all sense of the word illegal. Why should unwarranted and unwanted work that has been spray painted on the side of private businesses and homes be protected? On the other hand, the notion of graffiti has evolved to be considered a modern day art form with just as much power, presence, and social significance as any other form of art. Why is it justifiable to steal and take credit for this type of art just because the artists choose to present their work in a different way?

It turns out, however, that one type of illegality trumps the other. Who would have known, but originality is still held sacred in this country, because graffiti is in fact protected by copyright laws. According to the NYU Journal of Intellectual Property, “copyright should be neutral towards works created by illegal means. Because copyright should only be concerned with the immaterial work, the artist’s material transgressions should not exclude the work from copyright protection.”

In other words, copyright is still gonna protect your shit, even if that shit was painted illegally.

That does not mean, however, that there are not several addendums attached to that privilege. Copyright laws will protect the work, yes, but only from being reproduced. The law does not protect the original painted piece on the wall itself, that still belongs to the property owner. So the artist has the rights to the originality of the work, but not the original work itself. That’s basically like telling Leonardo Da Vinci that he can make copies of the Mona Lisa and tell everyone that he painted it, but that the actual painting does not belong to him. At least the artist does get credit for the piece, and can sell the rights to it if he or she chooses. It’s not nothing anyway.

This, however, has not stopped various companies from trying to take that small bone given to the artists by stealing the work and advertising it as their own, whether it be for an ad campaign, clothing label, creative marketing strategy, etc.

There was a recent dispute between street artist Cali Killa and Urban Outfitters, in which the popular clothing store stole one of the artist’s designs and put it on a T-shirt. However, another clothing store came forward with the knowledge that Cali Killa had in fact copyrighted the work, and the artist ended up winning the dispute. He now sells the T-shirts himself.

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An even more recent injunction is between Miami street artist,Ahol Sniffs Glue and American Eagle Outfitters. The artist filed a claim this past summer suing the controversial clothing brand for using one of his original designs in numerous advertising campaigns. The decision is yet to be made on this huge case, but one can hope that those assholes pay big time for blatantly stealing and taking credit for art that was not theirs.

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Graffiti artists are going to fight for their work and for the credit of that work just like any other creator or innovator, but in a perfect world they would not want to have to fight. Most graffiti artists do not want to have to copyright their work.

Of course, one of the main themes of graffiti is that it belongs to the street; it is for the public. You can imagine Banksy’s frustration when this piece was ripped off a wall and put on auction.

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The artist’s response is classic Banksy, seen below. He even puts a glass frame/layer over the rat to the right, similar to the frame/layer covering the original work above.

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Graffiti being auctioned, mass-produced, and/or sold as an article of clothing or posted on a billboard for an ad campaign is much more offensive to the concept of street art, so offensive that copyrighting becomes a necessity for graffiti artists, suddenly negating a critical quality of the art in the first place. And the people who buy these stolen works? They might consider themselves the art form’s biggest fans, but little do they realize that they’re killing the scene with their fandom.