I’m writing this letter because I feel it’s about time someone thanked you. Over the past few years your work has been lifted from the walls around us into high-end galleries and shops all over the world. It seems like everyone and their mother is selling your work. Banksy canvas prints, banksy wall art, banksy macbook stickers. Online shops, major retailers, street vendors, museums. People have uprooted the walls you’ve painted and sold chunks for over half a million dollars. Your work is sold at a hefty price tag in major galleries and museums while collectors scramble to get their hands on everything Banksy they can. The market responds to the laws of supply and demand. And you are very much in demand these days.
Yet your identity remains a coveted mystery. Despite allegations of who you are, it’s safe to say you have gone to great lengths to stay private. You managed to sell original canvas prints in New York without anybody really realising it at the time. That’s assuming they were in fact yours. It seems that originality, ownership and reputation are a recurring joke in your eyes. You’ve consistently undermined the artistic establishment and ridiculed governments and corporations the world over for their hypocrisy and greed. Exit Through The Gift Shop seemed like just another reminder of the art world’s absurdity. And there you sat, detonator in hand, shrouded in darkness with your voice altered, ready to take a giant dump on the proverbial system. Yet that system has swallowed your work whole and regurgitated it onto the high street for public consumption in thousands of products in the blink of an eye. Do you care? Does it bastardise your work to have it so effortlessly commodified? Is it the ultimate triumph? The ultimate joke?
We sell a large selection of Banksy wall art and stickers. We are by no means the only people selling Banksy wall art online. A quick Google search will show you the extent of it. In an amusing twist of irony, I’ve also seen your work in high street stores and museum gift shops. It is patently obvious that no one is licensing any of this. Who would they license it from? What would they pay? What would it mean for your philosophy? Those are questions worth asking. But here’s the one I’m asking: what does it say about copyright?
There are a thousand questions worth asking about copyright today. But the sale of your work in thousands of derivative forms poses an interesting one about the relationship between copyright and graffiti. Can you claim intellectual property in a work if it was created on someone else’s physical property illegally? If so, does it spell death for current understandings of property if we started to recognise property rights over a thing that was created by violating private property in the first place? How could you possibly prove you had created the work without opening up yourself to hundreds of criminal charges? Is there such a thing as copyright over art that is almost by definition in the public domain? If no one owns the rights, is it in the public domain and therefore open to anyone to use to create derivative works? Do photographers of your work have the most legally defensible copyright claim?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions. Maybe you do? Maybe someone reading this does? I’m writing a letter simply to see what everyone thinks. I would happily pay licenses for your work if they were reasonable and I knew the proceeds went to the rightful owner. Maybe you don’t want that. Maybe the entire process makes you sick. Yet another indication of how far the art world has fallen and how readily the public is willing to consume art as product. Maybe you think these businesses are free riding on your success. That might have some truth to it. But it’s not the whole truth. It takes time and effort to transform one of your designs into wall art. It takes even more investment to build an E-commerce identity and attract web traffic. These businesses are creating economic value and promoting your work at the same time. Is that fair?
My gut instinct is to think that your phenomenally popular image would be tarnished by meddling in these affairs. There can’t be much to gain in terms of reputation if you go after the little guys online for making derivative works from your graffiti. Even going after the big guys seems like a bizarre reversal of your philosophy. So what do you do? To those reading this: what would you do?