Swedish Store H&M Settles Legal Dispute with Graffiti Legend Revok
Retail giant H&M are the last corporation you’d expect to be going head to head with Joe Public after fighting off recent claims of racism. Regardless of your position on the topic of a small black boy wearing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’, millions of people were offended. Activist groups in South Africa staged protests at H&M stores across the country. A tiny number of them wrecked clothes racks and displays within the stores. Swedish giant H&M quickly reacted by pulling the ads and publicly apologising for the internet marketing campaign. Meanwhile the mother of the boy at the centre of this controversy was rolled out for global TV interviews stating the company wasn’t being offensive. The mother says she’d experienced direct racism and even been called a ‘monkey’ to her face, adding this particular instance of a boy modelling a hoodie ‘isn’t racist’ at all.
The H&M PR machine was apparently just getting warmed up. They say all publicity is good publicity, which appears to be the companies current strategy. This time the multinational corporation challenged image copyrights of street art graffiti in public places. Their high-end legal teams can no doubt build a strong case against copyrights of artwork painted onto public buildings with or without permission, but challenging a global community of artists and writers that paint walls both legally and illegally, wouldn’t be the wisest move for H&M.
The offensive photograph shows a man in mid-air presumingly practising the art of parkour or free running. The entire backdrop was artwork completed by Graffiti Hall of Fame legend Revok. A writer that remained steadfast to the cause over decades, turning down countless commissions from big branded corporations, choosing to sell artwork through organised art exhibitions in galleries. A carefully crafted career that came into question once H&M’s ad campaign went public. Revok’s friends and colleagues were all shocked to see Revok’s featured artwork, knowing how particular the artist is about his pieces. None as surprised as the artist himself, who immediately contacted his lawyer who sent a cease and desist letter to the company in January 2018.
“unauthorized use of his [Williams] original artwork, and the manner in which it is using the work, is damaging and is likely to cause consumers familiar with his work to believe there is a relationship between the parties”.
H&M sharpened blades stating “Under the circumstances, in which your client’s claimed ‘art work’ is the product of criminal conduct, Mr. Williams has no copyright rights to assert,” claimed the retail giant “The entitlement to copyright protection is a privilege under federal law that does not extend to illegally created works”. The complaint also stated “commission of illegal acts in connection with the graffiti, including criminal trespass and vandalism to New York City property, he does not own or hold any valid or enforceable copyright rights in the graffiti”.
Just in case you missed it, H&M were challenging the ‘entitlement of copyright protection’ of an international community of people that live to create street art graffiti. If they won this case it would mean anyone could use or reproduce public artwork in commercial or non-commercial projects without permission, royalty payments or recourse. All of the great work artists and the supporting community have done to bring local communities and artists together to improve local lives would be but a fleeting memory as street art graffiti artists revert back to the wild west days.
Flash forward months later and we’re more than pleased to hear the fat cats at H&M have settled their dispute with Revok. As part of the agreed settlement which took several months to negotiate, a number of Detroit based art institutions and charities are to be funded by the collaborative initiative from Revok and H&M.
“Detroit is a special place to me, where I spent several years living and working, and a city that will always feel like home,” Revok
The outcome has shocked many critics that had made comments such as “graffiti artists are only after the money”. Revok won’t earn any cash from the settlement, choosing to support the wider creative community.