H&M Lawsuit: Exploiting Art for Commercial Gain

H&M challenges the applicability of copyright law on illegal art in recent lawsuit.

Illustrator: Jade Mulcahy

In light of recent events, H&M has been under fire for more than its notorious fast fashion ethic. The company’s latest controversy takes the form of an inadvertent question mark surrounding the fair treatment of artists and their corresponding creations.

The altercation began when H&M chose a location for a fashion shoot. After deciding on a spray-painted handball court at a park in Brooklyn, H&M asked the city park whether it needed to pay royalties for featuring the mural in the shoot. After learning that the graffiti was unauthorized and the identity of the author unknown, H&M proceeded to use the art in its campaign. A few months later, the company received a cease and desist letter from the artist himself, Jason ‘Revok’ Williams, threatening further legal action.

H&M reasoned that because the art was produced illegally, Revok could not make any legal claims to his own art. This is a blow to the integrity of the artist’s craft because not only does H&M blatantly steal from them, but it attempts to justify the crime itself. When we strip the issue back to its legal roots, H&M does not have the law behind it. Two conditions must be met for copyright protection: the work must be original and fixed in a tangible medium. The law makes no mention that the work must be created under legal circumstances. Thus, by law, Revok’s work must be afforded legal protection.

Plagiarism is a serious offense, so why is this situation any different? Though H&M ultimately dropped the lawsuit, the situation put the plight of the artist into perspective. The artist who struggles to protect their artwork endangers themselves in the process, risking jail time for vandalism. Big companies exploit this by pushing the artists into an inescapable legal corner. The appropriation of art, illegal or otherwise, for commercial vainglory is, thus, shamelessly exploitive. Simply put, art exists in its own right by virtue of its production.