In recent years, copyrights in art have been hotly debated all over the world, partly due to suits against Terry Gilliam and American Eagle. The nature of copyright law is often slippery, and you are left wondering whether your act infringes on a copyright. Unfortunately, when it comes to copyright, it is not very easy to answer your questions. As a rule of thumb, if you use artwork without permission, it will not be considered an infringement. But in some cases, your use of an artwork may be considered an infringement. Whether you are a dealer of graffiti art or you are planning to buy some graffiti art, here are some important things you should know:

Street art can be copyrighted

Whether an artwork is a tiny scribble or a huge mural, it can be copyrighted if it contains some level of creativity. As soon as it is fixed in a tangible medium, it automatically becomes copyrighted. You have to know only two things to determine copyrightability of something.

Firstly, it can not be a copy of another person’s artwork. It must be a product of the artist’s creativity. For example, if you make a list of some phone numbers, the list can not be copyrighted, because you do not need to use your creativity to make the list.

Secondly, the work must be fixed in a tangible medium. It should exist for more than a transitory moment. A photograph, musical recording, text or a painting exist for more than a transitory moment. So, they can be copyrighted. Artists paint murals on a concrete wall, and that is why murals can be copyrighted.

Graffiti may or may not be copyrighted

While “street art” refers to sanctioned or commissioned artwork, “graffiti” refers to illegally placed images. Some argue that copyright protection should not be given to an artwork that has been illegally placed on a property. Some people think that governments should incentivise graffiti, because painting graffiti is a useful art. Since graffiti is often regarded as vandalism, some people think that graffiti artists should not be rewarded for this act.

But a work of art can be illegal and creative at the same time. According to the law, there is no distinction between graffiti illegally painted on street walls and original work that you find in the museum. At the same time, the law does not want artists to profit from their illegal activities. As a result, the copyrightability of graffiti is still a matter of debate.

To have a copyright, a graffiti artist does not need to register with the copyright office

But it is always a better idea to register anyway, because a registration will make sure that there is no chance of infringement. If you have a registration, you will find it easy to defend your point when the situation requires you to show a copyright registration. If things go wrong and the infringer is unable to pay the legal fees, the copyright office may have to pay you statutory damages, and the amount of the money may be up to $30,000 per infringement.

The owner of the wall can rip it down if you also do not own the wall  

That means you may not own that particular copy of the work even if you own a copyright. Yes, you can reproduce the work, but the owner of the wall may claim some right to the work because he may own the paint of the work. To save you from this problem, there is an act that allows you to prevent intentional distortion or destruction of the work.

In Melbourne, there are many mural artists who sell their works at excellent prices. If you want to purchase some graffiti art for your home, these artists can help you make an informed decision. But before you decide to purchase mural art, knowing a bit about its copyright is helpful.