Street Art: the dispute that nearly lost artists their rights

Written by Briffa | June 5, 2018


Recently H&M launched an advertising campaign which displayed the work of street artist Jason ‘Revok’ Williams in the background. Revok sent a cease and desist letter claiming copyright infringement, as it was an “unauthorised use of his original artwork”. He did not want people to assume an affiliation between him and the high street brand. H&M responded by taking legal action of its own. It filed a lawsuit, hoping the court would declare that there was no copyright to assert, because Revok had created the work illegally.

The problem being, this outcome could set a very unfavourable precedent. Asking the court to disregard Revok’s rights on the basis that his work was merely ‘vandalism’, is the same as asking the court to disregard the rights of all illegal graffiti artists. As a result, anyone would be free to exploit street art commercially, without permission, and artists would be left without recognition or legal standing in court. Attempts to argue otherwise would most likely achieve nothing, except possibly convictions for trespass and criminal damage.

As you can imagine, this caused major backlash from the artist community and absolute chaos on social media.  Recording artist, ‘The Weeknd’, severed his partnership with H&M and several other artists started a campaign that called for a worldwide boycott of the fashion retailer… And it worked. During the craziness, H&M withdrew its claim, stating:

“H&M respects the creativity and uniqueness of artists, no matter the medium. We should have acted differently in our approach to this matter. It was never our intention to set a precedent concerning public art or to influence the debate on the legality of street art,”

Whether it was the sudden realisation of what consequences could have resulted from its actions, of which it hadn’t fully considered; or whether it was the level of publicity (and hatred) which changed its mind, we cannot know. However, this is a great example of why you should seek legal (and PR) advice before risking your reputation by running blindly into an intellectual property dispute.

Briffa advises on all aspects of contentious and non-contentious intellectual property matters. If you would like to speak with one of our specialist lawyers, get in contact for a free 30 minute meeting.

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