After generations of graffiti writers urged an all-out boycott of H&M, the fashion retailer surrendered Thursday—telling The Daily Beast minutes after this story, now updated, was first posted that “we should have acted differently” and that they were withdrawing a lawsuit that had huge implications for street art and copyright.
The legal drama began in January, when Jason “REVOK” Williams, a renowned Los Angeles-based artist, sent the brand a cease-and-desist letter after it used his street graffiti, put up illegally, in a marketing campaign. According to REVOK’s lawyer, Jeff Gluck, friends and family were blowing up his phone with messages asking him if he collaborated with the Swedish fashion label after images of his abstract graffiti were featured prominently in ads that started popping up online. REVOK, who rarely takes on commercial projects and instead pays his bills by selling gallery work, wasn’t happy about being associated with the mass retail chain.
Instead of taking down the images, H&M countered with a lawsuit in federal court arguing that REVOK “does not own or possess any copyright rights in certain graffiti that was painted on New York City property without the permission of the city of New York.” They went on—in what is sure to be a brewing PR nightmare—to explain that his work “was unauthorized and constitutes vandalism.”
Thursday afternoon, H&M told The Daily Beast that it was dropping its case. “H&M respects the creativity and uniqueness of artists, no matter the medium. We should have acted differently in our approach to this matter. It was never our intention to set a precedent concerning public art or to influence the debate on the legality of street art. As a result, we are withdrawing the complaint filed in court. We are currently reaching out directly to the artist in question to come up with a solution.”
Asked to respond to that statement, Gluck told The Daily Beast that in fact “the lawsuit is not dismissed, and the artwork is even still being used on their website.” H&M did not immediately respond to follow-up questions about when the complaint would be withdrawn, and about whether they also intended to remove REVOK’s artwork from their website and ad campaign.
H&M made the decision to back away after dozens of graffiti writers and aerosol fans flooded Instagram in a concerted campaign this week calling for a boycott of the store.
“H&M is about to start a war with people who gladly destroy private property for fun in their free time,” opined one supporter on Instagram before the company’s reversal Thursday. “So dumb. At least it will be entertaining to watch.”
“This action taken by H&M is a full out assault on artists’ rights and we must raise our voices,” wrote graffiti author and scholar Alan KET. “This could render millions of murals and important pieces of artwork worldwide completely unprotected and available for corporate use, without any payment or permission needed whatsoever. We must not allow this company to use our artwork and appropriate our culture to sell their products, for their own financial gains, while at the same time allow them to devalue and delegitimize our artwork, our culture, and everything we work for.”
Anyone who follows street art found KET’s message re-posted over and over again in their scroll, along with other messages condemning the fashion giant.
West Coast colleague and writer OG SLICK is selling a tee for 99 cents.
Graffiti veteran and sculptor Carlos MARE 139 Rodriguez was one of many people to post an image of himself with middle fingers up in front of one of the chain’s stores. Notorious graffiti crew RIS (Rockin It Suckers) also added their two finger salute.
The abstract graffiti at the heart of the lawsuit was done without permission on a city-owned handball court in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and, H&M argued in its now withdrawn suit, “copyright protection is a privilege that does not extend to illegally created works.”
Gluck disagreed, noting that according to the language of the Copyright Act, there are safeguards for “...original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression...” and therefore it doesn’t matter if the work is illicit or not.
The fight itself showed how far graffiti has come. Once considered an urban blight, the outlaw artform has value nowadays even when it’s done illegally.
“Regardless of how anyone may feel about the underlying legal issue of illegal graffiti being protected,” REVOK’s lawyer in an email to The Daily Beast before the suit was withdrawn, “the real concern here is that while H&M sees value in using graffiti art in their advertising to boost their revenues and appeal to their target demographic of young people, they also appear to simultaneously undermine and discredit graffiti artwork and the culture via this legal action.”
When street art is painted with permission, there are even more protections for artists as the recent 5Pointz case proved—with a judge awarding a $6.7 million settlement to 21 artists whose murals were destroyed when developer Jerry Wolkoff tore down the building and put up luxury condos. It was seen as a major victory for VARA (the Visual Artists Rights Act), a statute that, unlike copyright, specifically addresses removal of public art, even when it’s done on someone else’s property.
H&M’s reversal wasn’t REVOK’s first win over a fashion brand. In 2014, he was part of a joint legal action against fashion designer Robert Cavalli for blatantly ripping his work for the brand’s “Graffiti” collection.” Cavalli eventually ended up settling that case.