May 26, 2024

How to license graffiti

A member of this morning raised an interesting question that has both legal and ethical dimensions: How should photos of graffiti be licensed, if at all?

Among the points he raises is that under U.S. law (as well as other jurisdictions), you can’t profit from an illegal activity like graffiti, so the graffiti artist can’t pursue a claim of infringement, and yet copyright apparently still attaches to the creative work, although that’s less clear if the work is the product of several individuals over time.

At any rate, it’s an interesting question (especially for IP law students), and we’ll like see a good number of such works of Remix Culture (in the form of photos and videos) displayed on sites like Ourmedia or Google Video in the months ahead. I suggested that a Creative Commons attribution share-alike noncommercial license was the most appropriate license when capturing an image of such graffiti art. Thoughts?


  1. copyrighting photos of other peoples art (graffitti) is utter bullshit.

    that’s other peoples work.
    you can’t take credit for it by taking a photograph.

  2. I definately think that the beautiful art of graffiti should be made legal,
    i am from the uk and as graffiti one of my largets interests, it should be made legal as it will lead to less people wanting to do it, as there will not be a ‘Buzz’ in doing it.

  3. One thing you’ve failed to mention is this: Just because work is produced does not guarantee copy rights. The graffiti artist would have to document the work himself, send a copy to the Library of Congress, and file the proper paperwork to have the image protected. He/she would also have to pay a lot of fees and legal expenses.

    Besides, any graffiti artist who decides to stand up and say, “Hey! They used my work! I want my money!” ought to be fined for other messes he made.

  4. there are a lot of places graffiti art is legal. like the alleys behind melrose in hollywood. these are the places you would probably want to go if you want to photograph the best work. so what do you do then? its legal. its someones art. right?

  5. Correct me please if I am wrong, but isnt the “can not profit from a crime” on a state to state basis? I do not think that is federal law, for example Georgia does not have it on the books.

  6. Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that graffiti is an art form unworthy of respect. But it seems that copyright is extending to cover everything, from juggling routines to yoga postures. The goal of copyright is explicitly to encourage the author, and those art forms have developed fine without protection — and the “protection” would stifle their further development.

  7. And I’m at a loss as to what you’re ‘horrified’ about. I’ve seen some absolutely gorgeous examples of graffiti over the years. Perhaps you haven’t.

  8. I am horrified that such a question can even be asked without one’s tongue firmly in one’s cheek. Yes, I realize that technically such an argument has considerable merit, but it — and, to be fair, a great deal of modern copyright law — defies all common sense.

    Perhaps the graffiti artist is creating an unauthorized derivative work of the copyrighted wall.

  9. Why not treat a graffiti image like computer virus code? There are certainly copyrighted works on the market that could be considered derivative works of computer viruses.