Street Art – generally, art that is produced on private property not owned by the artist and without permission – has entered the mainstream. Works by such artists as Banksy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Shepard Fairey now sell at the world’s most prestigious auction houses, fetching prices in the millions. Strangely, however, the law governing street art ownership is entirely undeveloped. The circumstances of street art’s creation – often involving artists’ clandestine application of their work to the sides of buildings owned by others – render traditional legal paradigms governing ownership intractable. If Banksy paints a valuable mural on the side of my house, who owns it? Me? Banksy? Someone else? American law is currently ill-equipped to answer the question.
This article rigorously investigates the problem of street art ownership. It accounts for the unusual circumstances of street art creation and distribution. It then considers the possible legal regimes for governing street art ownership and comes to a surprising recommendation.