Graffiti as Object of Copyright: When Could Legal Protection be Expected?

Authors: Aurimas Sobutas, Junior Lawyer at METIDA, Erikas Saukalas, Associated Partner, Attorney-at-Law, Head of the International Relations Division at METIDA, Court Mediator

facade-597170_640The attitude of the public towards graffiti is two-fold: some people consider it to be a form of artistic expression while others see it as vandalism. Nonetheless, one has to agree that graffiti holds an important place in contemporary art and may be original, commercially valuable or convey a unique approach towards certain issues or social phenomena. In order for graffiti to be regarded by the public as being more than a result of vandalism, the public should appreciate and respect intellectual property rights of graffiti artists (people who create graffiti) while the authors themselves should understand the boundaries of creative freedom associated with graffiti.

Graffiti as Copyright Protection Object 

It would be a mistake to believe that all graffiti which appears on the walls of buildings in the city is illegal.  The works of graffiti artists are protected by law – a graffiti artist may be granted exclusive rights to his work.

According to the Law on Copyright and Related Rights of the Republic of Lithuania “the subject matter of copyright shall include original /…/ artistic works, including painting and graphic art, which are the result of creative activities, whatever may be the objective form of their expression.” Evidently, this provision also applies to graffiti that may be classified as painting and graphic art created on walls and other flat surfaces. However, legal protection of graffiti is subject to originality of each artistic work that is the evaluation criterion applied by the court in a particular case.

Regardless the artistic value of graffiti, a graffiti artist enjoys the right of integrity of the graffiti, provided it is an original artistic work. Thus, the author of the painting and graphic art has the right to change, authorise or prohibit others to distribute or reproduce his graffiti in any form or manner, object to any distortion or other alteration of the visual artistic work or any claims to the graffiti which might affect the dignity and reputation of the graffiti artist.

Liability of Graffiti Artists

Although graffiti can be an object of copyright, graffiti artists do not enjoy unlimited freedom – it can be limited under the law or on other legal grounds. Most of the problems arise in connection with the rights of the owner of the immovable property on which graffiti appears.

Graffiti is usually painted on walls, bridges or other flat surfaces that have an owner and the owner’s approval is always mandatory. In the case of a natural person the approval can be obtained directly, whereas in the case of a legal person – usually by submitting an application to the municipality. It has to be noted that in the absence of the owner’s approval creating graffiti on other persons’ immovable property may result in administrative or criminal liability.

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