Justin Timberlake may be many things to many people, but despite his proclamations at February’s Academy Awards ceremony, he is not the elusive street artist known simply as Banksy. And yet, who is Banksy? For that matter, who is Thierry Guetta? Are these people one and the same as some have speculated? To put these questions into context, one must understand the elusive world of street art. The Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop seeks to impart such understanding to viewers, though in the process the film may beg more questions than offer concrete answers.

349681892_174ad1cfd8_oThierry Guetta wasn’t meant to be the focus of Exit Through the Gift Shop; initially he assumed the behind-the-scenes role of director for a proposed film about the projects and processes of street artists. However, fate or chance (maybe both) had different plans for Guetta, and he ended up being the focus of a film about street art directed by the most elusive street artist of them all, Banksy. Thierry Guetta was handsomely rewarded for whatever inconvenience this change of events caused him, as the film shows the metamorphosis of Thierry Guetta, amateur videographer, into “Mr. Brainwash,” a street artist in high demand by high society — two of Mr. Brainwash’s canvasses sold at the London Fall 2010, Phillips de Pury & Company Contemporary Art Sale for between $67,000 – $120,000.

Now Thierry Guetta may have to sell some of his pieces to satisfy a potential legal judgment against him, as he is currently the subject of a copyright infringement law suit. The suit, brought by photographer Glen Friedman, and scheduled for trial later this year, alleges copyright infringement for Guetta’s improper use of Friedman’s famous 1980s photograph of pioneering hip-hop group Run DMC. Guetta counters that his use of the photograph as a subject for many of his pieces was proper under the fair use doctrine. The fair use doctrine, which imposes limitations on a copyright holder’s ability to prevent a non-holder from reproducing a work subject to copyright, balances the right of a copyright holder to control the reproduction of a protected work with a non-holder’s legitimate use under specific circumstances — such as news reporting, scholarship, criticism, comment, or (famously) parody.

It is easy to root against Thierry Guetta in this lawsuit. For one thing, his artwork emulates (some say, copies) the styles of prominent street artists like Shepard Fairey, whose artwork often takes as subjects copyrighted images and alters them (such as the now famous Obama “Hope” poster). Whereas these street artists alter the source images by applying various artistic techniques (such as stenciling and sculpture), Guetta states in Exit through the Gift Shop that he alters images largely through scanning and photo-shopping. What is more, he does not even employ these techniques himself, but rather hires assistants to perform these tasks on his behalf.

Additionally, whereas many street artists claim to create their art as a statement about modern society, politics, or culture, Guetta’s art seems tinged by the profit motive. Indeed, the likeness of Friedman’s photo appeared on posters and other advertising activity used to promote Guetta’s 2008 “Life is Beautiful” art show, which generated more than a $1 million in proceeds from sales of his work. The Supreme Court stated in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose, 510 U.S. 569, 585 (1994), that commercial use is a factor that tends to weigh against a finding of fair use.

349683892_3a32973d16_oWhatever the outcome of Thierry Guetta’s case, it is clear that copyright law and street art are going to be a linked pair into the future. Whereas street art’s status as an underground movement shielded artists from legal scrutiny not so long ago, the large sums of money currently being made by prominent street artists and the notoriety the style is attaining will likely result in the filing of more copyright lawsuits. Another question is the extent of the damage done to the status of street art as a meaningful art form by those such as Thierry Guetta, whose art work is being derided as shallow and derivative. Will he and those like him do to street art what “sell-out” bands did to the punk movement and reduce its anti-establishment ideology to mere caricature?

Ian Quin

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One Response to Street Artist “Mr. Brainwash” Has Brush With Copyright Law

  1. velja says:

    To be honest, I think its getting absurd, and yes – I think its always with any kind of subculture. Nice post.