Selling the Writing on the Wall: Does Copyright Protect the Work of Graffiti Artists?

By Parker Howell
Editor in Chief

Is it possible to “steal” a piece of graffiti art? The Wall Street Journal recently posed this question in reporting about a Michigan lawsuit stemming from the removal of a mural attributed to the famous British street artist Banksy. A nonprofit art gallery allegedly removed the unsolicited work – which depicts a child holding a paint bucket next to the phrase, “I remember when all this was trees” – from a defunct Detroit factory in order to save it from destruction; the building owners argued that the piece could be worth $100,000, according to the Journal. But the apparent owners of the building demanded return of the work and monetary damages.

This scenario is reminiscent of one that played out recently in Seattle:, Inc. reportedly removed and installed in its new headquarters complex street art created on the walls of a former building on the site. The artists cried foul, asking for recognition for their work.

As graffiti by the likes of Banksy, director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” gains international popularity, economic forces may cause more of this traditionally taboo artwork to be removed from private and public streetscapes and transported to galleries or private collections (read more about blossoming graffiti in Detroit here). As a result, we may see further lawsuits like the one involving the Banksy piece. While it may appear unfair to street artists that their work is removed and displayed or sold for profit by third parties, property law doctrines suggest that artists probably have few property rights to their unauthorized works that would allow them to control disposition of the pieces or to profit from their display or sale. However, federal copyright law might provide some graffiti artists with a degree of protection against unauthorized removal, display, and reproduction of their creations – depending on how one interprets the scant federal case law on the subject.

What rights, if any, an artist has to a particular graffiti mural hinges on whether it was authorized by a property owner. Unsolicited street art may qualify as criminal vandalism under state or local laws. Moreover, under traditional property law principles, the owner of property where graffiti is made typically should own the physical work (i.e. the wall containing the painting). (An interesting case might arise if a graffiti artist claimed to have “mistakenly improved” property with valuable graffiti.)

Street artists might try to claim the protections of the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101, et. seq., although it is unclear whether this doctrine would provide recourse. Under copyright law, an artist receives certain exclusive rights in her creative work, such as to control display and distribution of copies.  If a copyright violation is found, the owner of the copyright may receive actual damages plus the infringer’s profits, or statutory damages.

But does the underlying illegality of graffiti prevent federal copyright protection? Two student commentators take different views. Under the statute, “ownership of a copyright is distinct from ownership of a physical object in which the copywritten work is embodied, so that ownership of one can be transferred without transferring ownership of the other.” 77 Am. Jur. Trials 449 (2000). This suggests that a painting on the side of a building could qualify for protection separate from the circumstances of its creation. In a memorandum opinion in Villa v. Brady Publishing,  2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11753, *7 (N.D. Ill. 2002), a federal district court “assume[d] without deciding, that the [graffiti depicted in a video game manual] is copyrightable and was … fixed in a tangible form.”  In a 2009 law review comment, Stacie Sandifer concludes that “the visual art form of graffiti does appear to confer fundamental rights of ownership that the artist can claim,” but suggests that deference “will likely be given to the building owner’s property rights” when copyright and property law clash. Stacie Sandifer, Unauthorized and Unsolicited; Is Graffiti Copyrightable Visual Communication?, 12 J.F.K. U. L. Rev. 141, 149 (2009). This view contrasts with the Villa court’s later statement, also in a memorandum opinion, that a copyright claim “would require a determination of the legality of the circumstances under which the mural was created.” Villa v. Pearson Educ., Inc., 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24686, *7 (N.D. Ill. 2003). In a journal comment, Danwill Schwender relies on this language to contend that the defense of illegality prevents copyright claims for graffiti. Danwill Schwender, Promotion of the Arts: An Argument for Limited Copyright Protection of Illegal Graffiti, 55 J. Copyright Soc’y U.S.A. 257 (2008). Schwender proposes an amendment to the Copyright Act to protect unauthorized graffiti.

As a practical matter, a graffiti artist would need to claim ownership of the copyright in the work, possibly exposing herself to criminal prosecution under state or local vandalism laws or to a tort lawsuit for trespass to land. See Sandifer, supra.  For graffiti artists who cultivate an aura of secrecy around their work, like Banksy, bringing a legal claim could result in an undesirable public unmasking.

Graffiti artists also might attempt to claim “moral rights” to their work established by the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), 17 U.S.C. § 106(a), in order to receive attribution for or prevent damage to their work. The VARA gives the producers of “works of visual art” the right to: claim authorship of the work; “prevent the use of his or her name as the author of any work of visual art which he or she did not create;” and “prevent the use of his or her name as the author of the work of visual art in the event of a distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.” Yet unsolicited street art may not qualify for VARA protection. Although no cases appear to squarely address the issue, a federal district court in an unpublished opinion stated that VARA “does not apply to artwork that is illegally placed on the property of others, without their consent, when such artwork cannot be removed from the site in question.” English v. BFC&R E. 11th St. LLC, 1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19137, *14 (S.D.N.Y. 1997). Furthermore, it is unclear when graffiti would meet the threshold question under VARA as being “works of recognized stature.” See John Nivala, Droit Patrimoine: The Barnes Collection, the Public Interest, and Protecting Our Cultural Inheritance, 55 Rutgers L. Rev. 477, 524 (2003).

When a property owner authorizes graffiti art, such as for creation of a community mural, the artist probably has more rights to control what happens to that artwork. See generally Michelle Bougdanos, Comment, The Visual Artists Rights Act and Its Application to Graffiti Murals: Whose Wall Is It Anyway?, 18 N.Y.L. Sch .J. Hum. Rts. 549 (2002).

In broad strokes, graffiti artists likely face a challenge if they decide to pursue legal remedies for removal and display of their unsolicited creations. As for the resolution of the Banksy lawsuit, read more here.

3 thoughts on “Selling the Writing on the Wall: Does Copyright Protect the Work of Graffiti Artists?

  1. Pingback: Graffiti IP « MINDS3T

  2. Pingback: Copyright Graffiti Art? Is That Legal?

  3. Excellent article, Mr. Howell. As a filmmaker and former Art Director, I’ve been wondering about this issue for years now in terms of how this applies to the reproduction of graffiti in a motion picture film. The styles of graffiti I refer to are generally text based: tags, etches, labels, throw-ups, burners, and (unauthorized/illegal) pieces ( I do not consider ‘street art’ to be graffiti, even though they share certain traits, because of the nature of their intent (graffiti artists desire recognition from their peers and ‘street artists,’ generally speaking, are seeking recognition from the art community).

    In film, it’s general practice to have to ‘Greek out’ copyrighted logos that are in the background of whatever we are shooting. ‘Greeking out’ means altering a logo so that it is unrecognizable, and thus avoiding any legal action from said company. For instance, on a NYC exterior street scene where a Coca-Cola sign is visible, we would paste local band flyers over, or through, the Coca part of the logo so that only Cola was legible. Shooting artwork is difficult because it has to be legally cleared by the artist, or his/her estate, or specifically created for the production, otherwise it is considered an unauthorized reproduction. In the film Basquiat, Julian Schnabel personally imitated Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting style because he either couldn’t get, or couldn’t afford, to get permission to use actual works by Basquiat. This didn’t work out as well for Warner Bros., whose film, ‘The Devil’s Advocate,’ imitated a recognizable sculpture by Frederick Hart (

    Filmmaking is considered a form of reproduction, so much so, that we have to use dummy currency in productions because shooting actual dollar bills is considered counterfeiting. Here’s an interesting article about the Secret Service raiding a prop house because their money looked too genuine (

    When it came to graffiti, no production ever cared about the legal ramifications of shooting this kind of work and that’s when I began to question the legality of their actions. I believe that producers see graffiti as the illegal work of kids that are ignorant of their rights and don’t pose an actual financial threat. Not viewing graffiti as art, but rather as vandalism, also plays into their decisions. I happen to believe that graffiti is art, and thus, protected by copyright law. The fact that it’s creation and dissemination is usually illegal should not be a factor for copyright protection. Artistically speaking, the illegal nature of graffiti is a major part of the creation process and has been since its inception (legal graffiti has always felt neutered and soulless to me). I have since learned that if graffiti, or other copyrighted material) is shot briefly in a film as a background element and it doesn’t play a central role in the film, as is did in the film (Wild Styles or Beat Street) then there is no copyright infringement.

    Thank you very much for writing and posting this article, I’m very glad to have read it. You have answered questions that have been swirling around in my head for 20 years. LOL.

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