The legal protections afforded to graffiti and “street art” artists have gained increased visibility in recent months. But while street art may be entitled to certain protections under the law, not every use of street art without permission will violate an artist’s rights. A recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York highlights this, finding that de minimis use of graffiti in a television production without the artist’s permission did not give rise to liability under the Copyright Act.
Legal Protection for Graffiti and Street Art
Graffiti and street art can be protected by the law like any other art form. For example, in a widely publicized decision earlier this year, a federal court in the Eastern District of New York found that street art painted on the famous “5Pointz” in Long Island City, Queens, was entitled to protection under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.
Graffiti and street art may also be protected from infringement under the Copyright Act. The Copyright Act protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” Street art that takes the form of a painted mural can be easily understood to meet this standard. Moreover, even distinctive graffiti-style lettering can, in certain circumstances, be protected under the Copyright Act. Generally, typeface alone will not be entitled to copyright protection. However, at least one court has found that stylized lettering in graffiti art was protectable. Likewise, the court found that a street artist’s choice of color and background imagery could be protectable elements of a graffiti design. Continue Reading