News came last week that another lawsuit has been filed over allegations of misappropriation of graffiti images. In this case, as summarized nicely by Cait Munro on ArtNet (I haven’t seen the complaint yet), graffiti artist Craig Anthony Miller:
claims the developer [Toll Brothers] violated his copyright on a since-destroyed “Elephant Mural” painted in 2009 and removed in 2013. The Toll Brothers, he claims, used a “very recognizable” portion of the massive, 90-foot work in advertisements for nearby apartments, which were displayed on subways, telephone boots, bus stop shelters, and in a newspaper.
Critically, the article reports that there were meetings between the artist and the developers, so there is almost certainly more to the story, including the possibility that there was a misunderstanding, or the defendants will claim they had permission (all hypothetically).
What it does is underscore graffiti art as an art law issue that is on the rise. From here, it doesn’t seem terribly in dispute that graffiti is protected by copyright, even if the artist can’t prevent its physical destruction (unless they get VARA protection, the most famous attempt of which at 5Pointz fell short). What seems possible (again, not with regard to this recent case) is that there are land mines lurking; if people never thought they needed permission to copy graffiti—they probably never got permission. It’s seems easy to imagine a widespread problem. The number of recent filings certainly supports that conclusion.