The medium of expression for a street artist is more often someone else’s property without the permission or knowledge of the owner. In its most unadulterated form, street art opposes authority and the law. On either private or public property, it is usually art made without permission and in violation of the law. Street art embraces metropolitan walls and streets, gifting the public with innovative visual imagery that becomes a part of the city as much as the wall it rests on. Perhaps one of the most rapidly expanding artistic movements is graffiti. Though India has not been much into this, the new era is for something different.
There has been a gradual increase in the number of street artists in India, namely, Yantra and Leena Kejriwal, and internationally there is Banksy and Manu Invisible. Graffiti art has evolved over the past several years from being disregarded as a nuisance and equated with vandalism. Even after the many surrounding conjectures, it has been gauged to be a legitimate form of art and a sought-after commodity among art collectors and enthusiasts. Since graffiti is on the verge of becoming the next big art market, it is grappling with questions of intellectual property protection on creation, unauthorised copying, and destruction.
Copyright in Street Art
In all its forms, street art has recently gained enormous popularity and is typically not seen as a nuisance to the property. It has instead developed into a highly marketable commodity throughout the world. To clarify a few supplementary terms, “street art” is an umbrella term for artwork produced in a public area. On the other hand, graffiti describes the application of spray paint to surfaces to produce images or different designs. Despite being used in many commercial endeavours, such as fashion brands and advertising campaigns, the law has not recognised it as art. So, the question remains whether it may be extended to copyright protection.
For a work to be qualified for copyright protection, it must be original, reduced to material form, and showcase creativity. Graffiti meets these criteria since it is artistic and fixed in a physical medium of expression. Technically, copyright exists as soon as it is created, so there shouldn’t be any formal requirement for the aforementioned conditions to be met. Other exclusive rights are solely available to the author of the work. For instance, they can publish or authorise the publication of their work, reproduce or authorise the replication of their work, and include or authorise the inclusion of their work in a cinematographic film or T.V. broadcast.
In the Indian scenario, any street art will fall under section 2(y) of the Copyright Act, 1957 (“Act”). Furthermore, as per section 2(c) of the Act, these street arts will also fall under the purview of artistic work. As stated above, copyright protection to subsist in work primarily needs to be original. There is no definition of “original” in the Act, but in the trade, it is assumed that an idea cannot be copyrighted until it has been expressed and is unique in its truest sense. The courts have tried to ascertain originality through various judgements, the most important being University of London Press Ltd. v. Tutorial Press Ltd. In this case, the Court relied on the ‘Sweat of the Brow’ doctrine and observed that the work need not be original in a revolutionary way. However, it should not be of a trivial nature either. Certain efforts must be made to ascertain whether it is original. Further, the “Modicum of Creativity” test stipulates that the work must involve minimal originality to be authentic and copyrightable.
It has often been observed that street art is often plagiarised without permission, taking advantage of the loophole, i.e., the lack of clarity in the law that extends to the protection of such work. It is imperative to understand that whatever the medium, the artist employs skill and labour. The art depicts artistic value and creativity, with the medium typically being a fixed, tangible building surface. Thus, street art should fall under the protection of copyright law.
Street Art- Neither Illegal nor Immoral
Copyright has two conditions, as indicated above: the work must be unique and created on a specific tangible medium. However, there is a significant flaw because the rules do not address the type of artistic production that may be immoral or in conflict with the law. This raises the question of what would happen if someone stole a pen and drew a captivating portrait on paper or stole a camera and took a stunning photo. The apparent query is whether A and B can both request copyright protection. But the fundamental question is: given that their work is the result of theft, should such stolen works be entitled to protection? In theory, the response should be affirmative. Yes, the portrait and the image should be covered by copyright protection.
Although, in reality, graffiti art is inherently in conflict with the law, through a particular style or identifying tags, the creator of that artwork is easily identifiable. The Copyright Act of 1957 does not specify any requirements relating to the substance of a work other than originality for copyright to exist in the work. Graffiti is a stationary original artistic work of authorship that should be eligible for protection under “painting, graphic, drawing, and sculptural works”, according to a straightforward interpretation of sections 2(y) and 13 taken together. The Trade Marks Act of 1999 and the Patents Act of 1970, which forbid the protection of marks or inventions based on standards like obscenity and morality, contrast this. Therefore, it is abundantly evident what the legislative objective was, and the denial of copyright protection for illegal works was not intended.
There have been theories that graffiti should be excluded from copyright protection because they stand on the fact that the law should not impede social justice and that these artworks are immoral. Contrarily, the author holds that what is immoral does not necessarily mean it is illegal. Graffiti always depicts an idea or message that is legal and should not in any way be considered criminal. It is pertinent to notice the intent behind such an artwork and how it proves instrumental in benefiting society.
Protection from (Mis)Appropriation
The graffiti movement in India is in a very nascent stage and has not seen many judicial precedents. There have been instances where artwork has been done on the wall of a property, or original artwork has been appropriated, but these cases have not come up for adjudication by the courts. We shall understand appropriation art through the same case-moot points of copyright protection.
Let’s say that X noticed some graffiti on the side of a building and decided to take it as his own. The graffiti artist Y accuses X of violating his copyright. In Court, X asserts that Y violated property law and tort law by defacing the property, causing vandalism, and engaging in trespass while creating the unauthorised art. However, X will be a violator if the Court decides that the graffiti work was copyrighted. It is the doctrine of equitable defence. The party to a litigation who has acted reasonably and honestly can avail itself of defence in equity. And the person guilty of violating or infringing on someone’s right cannot be supported by it. In Tekla Corporations & Anr v. Survo Ghosh & Anr, the Court considered whether an equitable defence is available to a copyright infringer. X, who violated Y’s right, may claim there was a violation. However, Y is not entitled to act against him because Y defaced the property wall and violated another law. The Delhi High Court decided in the negative. Therefore, the defence of unclean hands would fail if the graffiti is found copyrightable and the defendant is observed to be infringing the copyright.
The incentive-based theory is recognised as the primary defence of copyright by the Indian I.P. regime. The Indian Copyright Law’s immediate result is to ensure a just reward for the author’s labour. Still, its goal is to foster artistic creativity for the benefit of all people by providing this incentive. For instance, the United States Supreme Court stated that copyright’s monopoly privileges are “intended to encourage the creative work of authors as well as inventors by the provision of a special reward” in Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. According to the incentive-based argument, authors will stop producing new works if free riders are permitted to appropriate others’ works. Copyright protection is required, as it relates to the graffiti movement, to motivate artists to produce more graffiti without the free-riders.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently affirmed this claim in the case of Castillo v. G&M Realty L.P., noting that street art has developed into much more than spray-painted tags and quickly disappearing bits adorned by rebellious urbanites, which is entitled to copyright protection.
Though the street artwork movement in India is at a snail’s pace, we must follow the covenants of international treaties to answer any dissecting viewpoints. The purpose of copyright should be the promotion of art, the free flow of creativity, and, consequently, the progress of society. These principles are primarily upheld by the Berne Convention and the TRIPS Agreement. It mandates that copyright protection be established upon the creation of the work with no need for formalities (such as registration), thus excluding any room for scrutiny of the work and/or evaluation of whether its content or creation process deserves copyright protection. Moreover, the Guide to the Berne Convention states that the work’s value, merit, or purpose is irrelevant to the enjoyment and exercise of copyright and emphasises the all-embracing copyright protection of all works, regardless of the manner or form of their expression.
It is crucial to understand that, even though it is not explicitly stated, the jurisprudence surrounding copyright is largely based on the theory of personality rights, which includes the author’s moral rights as stated in the Berne Convention as well as acknowledged by Indian copyright law. Since India is a signatory, if a case of similar stature arises, these treaties’ reasoning and analytical viewpoint will serve well in the Indian copyright context.