H&M drops street art lawsuit amid backlash

By Ginella Massa

Retail giant H&M has dropped a lawsuit amid backlash from street artists.

This week, the clothing company had asked a U.S. court to declare graffiti exempt from copyright law because it’s illegal. A ruling would have essentially made unsanctioned street art fair game for major businesses to reproduce — and profit from.

But the request had the creative community calling foul, prompting H&M to drop the suit.

“It’s saying that artists have no rights,” said Brooke Somerleigh, project manager for Toronto graffiti artist SpudBomb. “It’s saying: you can profit and sell your brand by making it look cool and hip with that in the background, and the artists don’t get a say, never mind compensated.”

The issue stemmed from H&M’s latest ad, featuring a wall with graffiti by Los Angeles artist Revok. The man behind the painting sent the company a cease-and-desist letter, saying he didn’t want his work associated with the brand. That’s when the Swedish company hit back with its own lawsuit.

“I understand that it’s an illegal space, but it’s still the intellectual property of the artist,” argued Somerleigh.

It’s an assertion Toronto brand and fashion lawyer Ashlee Froese agrees with.

“It’s not where you affix the piece of art,” she explained. “The basis for having copyright is: is it original and is it a form of expression you put down in a tangible form?”

She said copyright protection exists once a work is created, and the creator isn’t required to register a copyright, though it is recommended.

It seems the issue isn’t uncommon. Somerleigh said she has heard from many artists who have seen their work reproduced without permission, and she once caught one of SpudBomb’s pieces being used in a Toronto ad campaign.

“Nobody called me and asked me if they could use that,” she recounted. “You’re reproducing someone’s art. It’s angering. It’s shocking.”

In response to the fierce backlash and calls for boycotts, H&M issued a statement Thursday.

“H&M respects the creativity and uniqueness of artists, no matter the medium,” the company said. “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.”

H&M said it is reaching out to Revok to “come up with a solution.”

Froese says it’s likely issues like this will continue simply because large companies have deep pockets and can litigate.

“Unfortunately, if they go after independent designers, they might not have the fortitude financially, or an awareness that they have rights,” she said.

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