‘They Had No One in Their Corner’: Meet the Lawyer Who Is Battling Big Corporations on Behalf of Street Artists
Corporations want to be associated with street art—but they don't want to pay artists for their work. That's where lawyer Jeff Gluck steps in.
In recent years, a growing number of street artists have found themselves in court—but not to defend themselves from law enforcement. Instead, they have been proactively filing suits in droves against big corporations like General Motors and H&M for using their art in advertising and on products without their consent.
The wave of legal activity—often after initial efforts like cease-and-desist letters go unheeded—has been viewed as a sign of the increasing professionalization and commodification of street art. But as it turns out, it can also be linked in large part to the efforts of one man: a young lawyer in Los Angeles named Jeff Gluck. Since he opened his eponymous law firm in 2016, he has filed dozens of lawsuits on behalf of artists including Revok, Rime, and Smash 137, and settled hundreds of cases ahead of litigation.
“When I began working with artists, I noticed how frequently they were being ripped off,” Gluck, a forthright speaker who chooses his words carefully, tells Artnet News. “These big corporations would just take their work, and try to intimidate them and push them around. They were underrepresented and had no one in their corner. No other law firm was helping them.”
A Godsend or a Shakedown?
Over the past decade, as streetwear brands like Supreme have become billion-dollar businesses, corporations have become eager to align themselves with the edgy and hip spirit of street art. But because street artists often work independently, without a gallery or agent—and because the nature of their work is not always entirely authorized—it often remains unclear exactly what rights they have to their own work, and under what circumstances.
But sometimes, Gluck argues, companies take advantage of this gray area to willfully avoid getting permission from artists who create the murals or designs on which their commercials and fashion lines rely.
“This type of thing happens more than you could ever imagine,” artist Jordan Nickel, who works under the name Pose, tells Artnet News. Until he was connected with Gluck about five years ago through an artist friend, he said he had largely resigned himself to being “powerless” when he saw his work appropriated.
“My assumption was, ‘It’s a bummer, but it is what it is,’” he says. Gluck has since negotiated on his behalf in several instances when his murals were used without his permission and negotiated settlements. “To be honest, it’s a godsend,” he says.
The stakes are high for these artists. Pose says he works with certain brands for ad campaigns, but selects his projects carefully. Unauthorized use of his images has the potential to “burn me up to work with other brands,” he says. In this business, “your livelihood is your image.”
But not everyone considers Gluck a folk hero. Some liken him and others who bring these claims to legal trolls, actively searching for infringements and filing actions only after scouring the internet for evidence that their work has been borrowed. They also raise concerns about the scattershot nature of the litigation, which they say isn’t always tailored to each artist’s individual interests.
Car manufacturer Mercedes Benz, which is currently locked in a legal dispute with several artists Gluck represents over pictures of Detroit murals used in a series of Instagram posts, characterized the threat of a copyright infringement lawsuit from the artists as a “shakedown attempt.”
Good for Business
So far, however, those shakedowns have proven reasonably lucrative. Gluck claims he has obtained multimillion-dollar settlements for artists who have had their work infringed.
Since the art isn’t always done with permission, Gluck can’t necessarily sue for copyright infringement. But he has been promoting a new and relatively untested brand of lawsuit under the Visual Artists Rights Act, which gives artists some recourse to protect the integrity of their work.
And while these artists might not have galleries or collectors to advocate on their behalf alongside their legal teams, they do have an army of online fans that can help push companies to respond. Take mass retailer H&M, which received a cease and desist letter from Gluck in 2018 on behalf of Los Angeles-based artist Jason Williams (also known as Revok), who spotted a mural he created in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, prominently featured in one of their ad campaigns. (H&M, for its part, asserted that it had checked with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation about the identity of the artist in order to obtain permission but was informed that the work had been created illegally.)
The company could never have anticipated the backlash that ensued when it filed a federal lawsuit against Revok seeking a declaratory judgement asserting that his work did not merit copyright protection since it was created without permission from the park.
After being blasted online by high-profile artist KAWS, producer and art collector Swizz Beatz, and other critics who called for a boycott of H&M, the retailer backed off. Further, as part of a settlement hammered out by Gluck, H&M agreed to donate to a number of Detroit institutions and charities handpicked by Revok, including City Year, MOCAD, Teen Council, and the Empowerment Plan.
“Jeff has been a tremendous help to me,” Revok told Artnet News. “We were able to take this unfortunate and bad situation, which was really not good press for anybody, and turn it into a positive.”
For Renee Vara, an appraiser and artists’ rights expert who testified at length during the now-famous 5Pointz trial, Gluck’s emergence and artists’ increased ability to galvanize support on social media are interconnected. “His work has collectively helped to empower artists to seek their rights in the US,” she says. “Now artists are increasingly getting creative in not just utilizing the legal space but also effectively utilizing the social space, by leveraging social media and their position as influencers.”
Resistance to Authority
Gluck—who was a street art fan when growing up and says he has always been drawn to “countercultures” and “acts of rebellion”—started his legal career in 2008 as in-house counsel for an experiential marketing agency in LA. That’s where he met a number of artists and began hearing about their struggles with companies using their work without permission. In 2016, he opened his own intellectual property litigation firm with an emphasis on representing designers and visual artists.
Now, he considers many of those clients friends—and even collaborators. Earlier this year, he partnered with New York-based artist Othelo Gervacio on a limited-edition line of hoodies and sweats that spell out “Gluck Law Firm” in the artist’s signature drippy letters on black fabric.
“I care deeply about their work, their well-being, and protecting their rights,” Gluck says of his artist clients. “Livelihoods are at stake when your work becomes copied and used without permission. These cases are personal for me.”
Gluck traces the origins of these cases to the rise of the internet—and so as long as companies continue to trawl the web for inspiration, he will remain busy. “The internet is a place where creatives can post and share their work, which is great, but that also means it can become a massive source for corporations to search for artwork to use in campaigns, often without permission,” he explains. “Platforms like Instagram provide both an opportunity for artists and designers to share content, but also a place for marketing agencies to seek inspiration and, unfortunately, that inspiration sometimes turns into copying.”
Graffiti and street art is popular enough among upwardly mobile consumers that “some companies that market and sell streetwear merchandise send out scouts to find out where the hot-spot graffiti areas are, be it in New York, LA, Detroit or Houston,” notes attorney and copyright expert Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento.
And since the popularity of street art shows no sign of waning, artists’ advocates hope that the increasing legal activity will eventually change the way business as usual is done. “Hopefully, the trend wherein large companies seek forgiveness after infringing will soon evolve to a standard which seeks permission first,” Vara says.
In the meantime, Gluck will be watching. “My clients are the only authority figures I respond to,” he says. “That’s how I see it. I don’t care about big companies.”
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