BA is the latest corporation to be caught up in a controversy over the use of urban art following its advert on a Shoreditch street corner. Art law specialists Tim Maxwell and Fred Clark explain why brands should be aware of the risks and not simply help themselves to artworks.

British Airways earlier in the month came under criticism for using the art of street artist Claudia Walde, or MadC, Elian Chali and Alexis Diaz in an advertising campaign in Shoreditch.

At the centre of the advert are the words ‘Hey Shoreditch what if … surprise your loved one this weekend?’ written over eye-catching artworks, a bouquet of flowers and a frothy cappuccino – artworks from Mad C’s acclaimed 2013 Chance Street mural and Elian Chali's and Alexis Diaz's Hanbury Street mural.

The billboard was designed by Clear Channel, who according to the Evening Standard, say that they used the images in good faith and took them from reputable image libraries.

Many people, including it seems large corporations, think that because street art is public it can be freely used. This is wrong. The law in England may give graffiti or street artists intellectual property rights just like other artists.

Intellectual property (IP) rights are invisible rights that protect the visible and audible creations of artists and designers.

Copyright is an automatic right that arises when an original work is created and recorded and lasts for the lifetime of the creator plus another 70 years. It may be hard to believe, but even your doodles on an old envelope on your desk automatically benefits from copyright protection.

There are also moral rights, which are intended to allow artists the right to have work attributed to them and to protect the artists from others distorting, mutilating or otherwise modifying their work.

And this is not the first time large brands have tried their luck by attempting to look ‘cool’ by adopting street art. McDonalds too came under fire in the US when it used images from cult New York ‘artist and provocateur’ Dashiell ‘Dash’ Snow in its restaurants.

Where copyright is infringed, artists are often left in positions where they face well-resourced companies who may have copied their work. Most artists have relatively limited resources. Despite knowing their rights have been infringed, it may not always make sense economically to go after people who steal their images and ideas.

The Courts in recent years have devised ways to encourage intellectual property owners to assert and protect their rights. In addition to the negative publicity, brands found to be breaching copyright can face stiff penalties, including injunctions and damages.

There is of course a simple commercial solution. Brands who want to use someone’s art should contact the artist or their representatives and ask to be granted a licence to use it. A fee and other terms of use, such as the period of use and the locations where it can be used - for example worldwide or in a particular country, or even on one particular billboard - can then be agreed.

Street art can then be enjoyed by everyone without taking commercial advantage of the artists.

This article first appeared in the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Influence Magazine.