Teresa Scassa - Blog

Thursday, 14 February 2013 15:37

Public Art, Private Rights: The Case of Graffiti

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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Roberta Bell of the Orillia Packet and Times has reported on an art exhibit that was pulled by a local art gallery after concerns were raised about possible copyright infringement. The situation highlights competing public policy concerns.

The artist in question, K.D. Neely, had digitally enhanced a series of photographs she had taken of graffiti from the Raval district in Barcelona. This is not the first time such an issue has arisen in Canada. Similar copyright concerns led to the closing of another exhibit of photographs of graffiti at a Toronto Gallery in 2008.

There is no question that graffiti may constitute an “artistic work” within the meaning of the Copyright Act. It is an interesting and open question whether copyright can be enforced in illegal works, but not all graffiti is illegal. Many such works are commissioned by building owners or municipalities, for example.

The owner of copyright in a graffiti artwork, like any other copyright owner, has a series of rights under the Act which include the right to reproduce or authorize the reproduction of their work. Taking a photograph of all or a substantial part of a graffiti artwork is a reproduction under copyright law. Further, an artist has certain moral rights in relation to their work. These would include the right to be associated with their work by name or pseudonym, or to remain anonymous. The moral right of integrity protects the artist against any distortion, modification, or mutilation of their work to the prejudice of their honour or reputation. In the case of a painting, the prejudice is deemed to have occurred as a result of any mutilation or modification. A photograph that presents only part of a graffiti work, or that adds elements to it might therefore violate the artist’s right of integrity.

Of course, a photographer whose photographs do more than simply reproduce the work of another would also have copyright in their own works. A photographer who makes choices as to what parts of a graffiti work to include in her photo, or how to include other aspects of the urban landscape, for example, is creating a new, copyright protected work. However, it is well established that an artist (or a writer, or musician) cannot incorporate the copyright protected works of others into their own works unless they have permission to do so, or unless they can rely upon a fair dealing defence. The fact that a new work is created is not, on its own, a defence to copyright infringement. Musicians who engage in sampling and appropriation artists have railed against these restrictions on how they create their own works, but copyright law has remained, by and large, unyielding in the face of these arguments. One of the public policy issues raised by this case, therefore, is whether the law gives appropriate latitude to creators to draw upon the works of others in the creation of their own works. When does a new work sufficiently transform the work on which it is based so as to be free from the need to seek permission to use the earlier work?

In Canada, the fair dealing defence to copyright infringement is available only where works are used for certain purposes. These are: research or private study, criticism or comment, news reporting, parody or satire, and education. In addition to being used for one of the specified purposes, any dealing with the work must be fair. The amount of the work used, and the impact of the dealing on the original are both factors that are taken into account in assessing fair dealing. Fair dealing is thus a very context-specific defence, and in many cases it will be frankly rather difficult to know whether a person’s dealing with a work was fair without engaging in costly litigation. There is no general exception to infringement based on arguments that a new work has been created.

Section 32.2 of the Copyright Act sets out a series of “permitted acts” in relation to copyright protected works. In paragraph 32.2(2)(b), the law provides that it is not copyright infringement to “reproduce, in a painting, drawing, engraving, photograph or cinematographic work” either an architectural work or a sculpture that is permanently situated in a public place or building. The provision clearly aims to establish a balance between the rights of copyright holders and the rights of individuals to occupy and relate to the public spaces around them. In other words, if your art work is in a public place, you have to accept that it will be treated as part of the landscape in photographs and other artworks. This is the case whether photos are taken by tourists, artists, or by photographers who sell their works for postcards or calendars.

What the drafters of s. 32.2(2)(b) omitted to address, however, was the issue of paintings that are situated in public spaces. Indeed, graffiti is very much a part of public landscapes. However, it would seem that unlike sculptures in parks or city squares, it cannot be photographed with impunity. This clearly seems to be a gap in the law. Why should graffiti artists be put in a better position than architects or sculptors when it comes to their rights in relation to their works? Why should anyone be inhibited in the taking of photographs of urban streetscapes that contain graffiti?

One answer to these questions might be that graffiti artists are in a different position than architects and sculptors, who are often paid handsomely for their contributions to public space. Although some works of graffiti are commissioned, many are not, and graffiti artists might well object to the capture of their works in photographs that are sold in galleries or reproduced for sale in other contexts without their permission and without compensation. The position is certainly understandable, yet it is also important to keep our public spaces as public as possible. Layering our streetscapes with private rights is almost certainly not in the broader public interest. Yet barring a change in the law or a surprising court interpretation of fair dealing in the context of photos of graffiti, this would seem to be our current situation.

 

Last modified on Thursday, 14 February 2013 15:42
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