Dinner Table Conversation: Is It Illegal to Steal Something That Is Illegal?

March 24, 2018

Whoa! We know! That is rather confusing. But that question was put in front of a judge this week. On one side of the issue was the popular clothing store, H&M, and on the other side, a graffiti artist. You see, H&M used a popular graffiti artist’s work in its ads, and ordinarily, companies must pay artists for any art they use.

When H&M recently used graffiti by Revok (also known as Jason Williams), the artist sent a letter asking H&M to stop using his graffiti. He did not want people to think he was working with the store. Fair enough, you might think, but H&M took an unusual stand, claiming that since graffiti itself is illegal, it is not technically covered by copyright infringement laws. So H&M filed a federal lawsuit asking the courts to deny Williams’ rights over his own art.

That leads us to an interesting question: Is graffiti illegal?

Actually, graffiti is considered illegal. Since graffiti is most often seen on public walls and property, it hasn’t been very popular with city officials. A law created in 1971 states that anyone caught creating graffiti could be arrested and fined. But back to the story … after filming its ad, H&M emailed the New York Parks and Recreation Department to ask if they had to pay them for using the graffiti. The Parks and Rec Department, unaware of the art’s creator, said H&M did not need to pay. Given the “illegal” nature of their work, graffiti artists often don’t come forward to claim their work, but H&M’s move to file the case was not well received by the artist community, and many members decided to boycott H&M. Ouch! While H&M initially stuck with the lawsuit, the company eventually dropped the case.

What do you think: Did Mr. Williams have the right to ask H&M to stop using his graffiti art or was H&M in the right to use his art since it is illegal to graffiti in the first place?