What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Banksy and other graffiti artists are gaining increased commercial acceptance in the traditional art world. The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art recently had an exhibition called Art in the Streets featuring artists such as Banksy and others. But whether such artists’ works are protected by the Copyright Act, among other legal doctrines, is unclear. There is paltry case law on point. ¬†We recently found this out when researching the issue for a somewhat famous — or some might say infamous — New York graffiti legend.

The Copyright Act generally protects creative works fixed in a tangible medium. Song lyrics are a good example. When Bob Dylan writes his song, All Along The Watch Tower, on a piece a paper, he can register the song with the Copyright Office. Only then can Mr. Dylan can than pursue others for using the song unlawfully. Many federal courts require a work to be so registered before suit can be brought by the artist for damages, attorney’s fees, and statutory damages.

But what about creative works that are fixed by graffiti artists all around New York City’s walls and subways? Assume Banksy paints the picture above on a Fifth Avenue wall. Could he then go and register the work with the Copyright Office, just as Mr. Dylan did with his song? Even if he can’t, does that mean Bansky has no legal protection? The questions are simple. But the answers are not so clear.

There are no cases directly on point. There is one case from the Northern District of Illinois, entitled Villa v. Pearson Education, Inc., in which the court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss the graffiti artist’s copyright infringement claim because there was an issue of fact whether his art was illegal. There is also another case pending overseas between graffiti artist CanTwo and the Spanish Olympic Committee, reports the Wall Street Journal in CanTwo Says “Can Not!” to Spanish Swimmers. But that case is not yet decided and it involved apparently legal graffiti.

While this uncertainty is troubling, a graffiti artist should nonetheless be able to argue that a gallery is unjustly enriched when they sell a photo of his work but don’t pay him even if he does not have a copyright claim. That’s because what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If a gallery is going to commodify the artist’s graffiti efforts in a secondary market, it will be hard pressed to argue that the artist has no rights in the primary market because the work was illegal.

What would Jimmy do?

What would Jimmy do?

In 1994, Congress extended copyright protection to foreign works of art that were not previously protected by the Copyright Act. You say: “so what?” Well, in so doing, Congress made it so that you have to pay to use certain works, such as “If I Had My Way,” which were previously in the public domain. The debate has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where arguments were heard last week in Golan v. Holder on whether Congress has such power under the Constitution. Congress likely has such power, and there are good reasons why Congress would expand copyright protections to such works.

The legal issue before the Court in Golan is whether Congress has the power to grant copyright for the very first time to works that were not previously copyrighted at all. The plaintiffs in the case argue that if the works were not protected by copyright at the time, they cannot now be retroactively subject to copyright by Congress under the Constitution.

Congress has broad power under the Constitution to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Aerts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” As such, Congress does not have unfettered right to bestow copyright protection for however long it wants. In the plaintiff’s view, the 1994 law extends the term of copyright, which is the life of the author plus 70 years for works created on or after January 1, 1978, beyond that currently allowed.

However, there are good reasons why the passage of the 1994 law “promotes the Progress of Science and useful Arts” by extended the protective shroud of — and not the term of protection under — the Copyright Act. Under the Berne Convention, American artists get reciprocal protection for their works overseas provided their foreign artist colleagues are protected here, too. As Solicitor General Donald Verilli is quoted in Copyright Law Challenged, the 1994 law amounted to “the price of admission to the international system.”

It seems that, if Mr. Jimmy Hendrix were alive, we would likely have been in favor of the 1994 law. (Justice Roberts referred to Mr. Hendrix in oral argument.) An avid traveler to places like Essaouira, Morocco, Mr. Hendrix would have wanted his works to be protected overseas, even if that meant his foreign compatriot’s works would be provided protection here, too.