Can street art be protected in India?

The visual art discourse in India was limited to modern contemporary art showcased in formal exhibitions. However, India has seen a surge in the number of street artists across the nation painting streets with their colourful strokes.

With the rise in appreciation and recognition of street art, several conflicts have emerged with respect to street artists and their rights around the world. Street art is consistently copied and reprinted on clothing, posters, and merchandise. The fundamental question that lies is whether Street artists have rights with respect to their own artwork and whether they can claim copyright protection for the same.

Artistic works are protected under the Indian Copyright Act, 1957. To qualify as an artistic work, the work must be original, and fixed in a tangible and durable medium. The expression of work should be a result of application of skill and judgement on part of the artist creating the work. 

Street art is considered to be a type of art holding an artistic value and creativity. It involves great skill and labour. The medium chosen for depiction of such skills is usually a building or boundary wall. This can be inferred to be the surface in case of street art, which is a tangible medium. Hence, street art can fall under the category of artistic works open to copyright protection.  Artistic works are protected under Indian law and street artists should have similar discourse for protecting their artwork. 

An artist’s rights are protected under the broad heading of moral rights. Moral rights are the rights of the author, in this case the artist. They are independent of copyright and they vest in the author. The author has a right to claim authorship i.e., to be credited for their work. This means that an artist has the right to protect their artwork from damage and modification that may be derogatory to their artwork. The artists would also be entitled to claim credit for their work and consent before utilising their work for commercial use. 

Not every street art can be protected under Intellectual property laws, however certain projects that involve original and skilful work might come within the purview of copyright. An artist would be entitled to claim credit for the work and would have a discourse if the act of copying or reproducing is done without their consent. However, an artwork needs to be produced legally to seek such protection. Illegal graffiti and street art may not have this protection.

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