GM Sued After Using Graffiti Artist’s Work Without Consent

The artist known as Smash 137 claims that the company violated copyright law. But can graffiti be copyrighted?

byAlejandra O'Connell-Domenech|
Cadillac News photo

General Motors used graffiti art in a Cadillac campaign without consent from the artist. Now the Swiss artist, Adrian Falkner, aka Smash 137 who is based in Los Angeles, is suing the auto-manufacturing giant for copyright infringement.

Falkner was commissioned four years ago to paint a mural on the outdoor elevator shed of a 10-story parking garage in Detroit owned by businessman Dan Gilbert, according to The New York Times.

The garage is not just any garage either, it's also considered a public art gallery. Along with Falkner’s art, the work of two dozen graffiti artists is on display on the structure. But it is Falkner’s work that has the privilege of being on display on the garage’s roof, where the public could easily see it from surrounding buildings and streets below. It's also surrounded by views of Detroit's skyline

The freelance photographer hired by General Motors to shoot for Cadillac’s “Art of the Drive” campaign chose to use Falkner’s mural as a backdrop for just that reason, according to court documents.

After GM published the campaign photos to its social media accounts, Falkner decided to pursue legal action and sue the company in Federal District Court in Los Angeles The New York Times stated. 

The New York Times went on to say that federal copyright law protects most graffiti. Even though not all street art is defined the same, original creative work that is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” is protected. 

While not all graffiti is considered creative work, and courts have only recently started taking on the challenge of deciding whether legal distinctions can be made between commissioned and unauthorized graffiti, it'll be up to the court to decide if Falkner's mural in Detroit falls into the protected category. 

A hearing is scheduled to consider arguments in the case July 23.