Bad news for General Motors; good news for graffiti artists. The automaker’s attempt to argue that graffiti can be considered part and parcel of a piece of architecture, and thus exempted from copyright law, failed to convince a California federal judge.
In 2016, an advertising campaign shot by a freelance photographer for Cadillac featured a mural by Swiss graffiti artist Adrian Falkner (whose tag is “SMASH 137”) as a backdrop. The artist, who wasn’t consulted about the shoot and never gave permission for the use of his mural, sued GM, Cadillac’s parent company. As we reported in July, Falkner and his attorneys allege that the campaign constitutes copyright infringement and “damages [Falkner’s] reputation, especially because he has carefully and selectively approached any association with corporate culture and mass-market consumerism.”
GM’s defense has been to argue that the graffitti is actually an inexorable part of the building's architecture. This is because copyright law allows for pictorial representations of architectural works. U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Wilson dismissed this claim.
“This is a massive victory for artists’ rights and strikes down GM’s offensive attempt to take protection away from a legally permitted work of art painted on a building,” Jeff Gluck, an attorney for Falkner, told Artsy. “If the court had sided with GM, the decision may have stripped protection away from thousands of other important works of art—nearly every legal mural painted on a building structure.”
Judge Wilson determined that he cannot, “hold as a matter of law that the mural,” which was commissioned by the garage’s owner, “is part of an architectural work.” A major win, for now, for graffiti artists looking to get paid for their work, as Falkner’s case appears to be headed to trial.
“As we proceed to trial against General Motors, we encourage all artists to continue fighting for their rights and take a stand against corporations allegedly seeking to profit off of their work while at the same time trying to use our legal system to devalue it,” Gluck added. “If a company sees value in using street art and graffiti in their advertising to help sell their products, shouldn’t they also show value for the artists creating it, instead of filing legal motions to render the work valueless?”