Word on the street: advertising, street art and intellectual property

Recently, McDonald’s and other brands have been accused of cultural appropriation, using without permission the work of street artists in advertising campaigns in Europe. These companies will spend many millions on protecting their own brands and for McDonald’s, with a strong tradition in supporting the arts, it should have known better.
McDonald’s has faced vociferous criticism for using the work of a New York City graffiti artist group, called the Bushwick Collective, in a video entitled ‘McDonald’s Presents the Vibe of Bushwick NY’. The video was used to promote the fast food chain’s latest menu addition – the New York Bagel Supreme. McDonald’s commissioned the video using six graffiti artists from the collective to paint its new bagel burger in different locations across the Netherlands.

However, the film featured murals by other artists in the collective whose permission had not been sought. Artists Virus, NDA, Atomik, Don Rimx, Beau Stanton and Himbad allege that the restaurant giant infringed their copyright and falsely suggested it had secured their endorsement, and claims have been threatened.

The case highlights a wider public misconception. Many people, including large corporations, think that because street art is public it can be freely used. This is incorrect. The law in England gives graffiti or street artists intellectual property (IP) rights just like other artists. These rights can extend to false endorsements, which can be particularly damaging for street artists if their reputation depends on staying out of the mainstream.

Artists and their estates are well versed at deriving commercial benefit from their copyright when others want to use it. For example, if a song is going to be used in an advert or Hollywood blockbuster, the songwriters will negotiate a fee and license the rights to use the song. If this does not happen, they will be able to pursue legal avenues to make a claim for the infringement and may be paid damages.

Street artists face different challenges. Brands have been known to claim that street art is public property and can therefore be freely used or that copyright does not apply because it is criminal vandalism. This is simply wrong.

Despite the courts devising ways to encourage IP owners to assert and protect their rights some street artists, who may have limited financial muscle, feel that brands can simply do what they want. Although they can prove their rights have been infringed, it may not always make sense economically to go after people who steal their images and ideas. That cannot be fair.

Street art can be enjoyed by everyone without taking commercial advantage of those who created it in the first place.