Part of the problem with being an artist that is both world famous and also anonymous (or perhaps more accurately, pseudonymous) is that it presents a real challenge in protecting your work, should you choose to do so. Or at least one assumes; I am not a world famous anything, so I can’t speak definitively on the topic. But it seems to be a problem for Banksy, who has run into some trademark issues in the past that are undoubtedly harder to contest when you’re exerting so much effort to maintain a hidden identity.
Now he’s up against it yet again, this time losing a trademark case before the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO). Banksy had filed for a trademark for a work that is purportedly his, featuring a monkey wearing a sandwich board (you can see the work in question in the linked article, but rest assured anything involving a monkey is my idea of high art.) The filing was contested by a greeting card company called Full Colour Black, asserting that the creation in question was not distinctive.
It’s an assessment the EUIPO seems to agree with, as it has ruled Banksy’s trademark to be invalid. The rationale offered by the body is that the work was displayed in a public space, free for anyone to photograph, and to this point free for others to reproduce, points which Banksy argues shouldn’t be barriers to filing for trademark protection.
Here is where Banksy’s gonzo style comes back to haunt him, and where his ideology, such as it exists and is understood, seems to break down. It’s hard to exist outside the system while trying to make use of that system on the occasions that you see use for it. If you’re not going to work fully as other artists do, you can’t be surprised when you don’t get the same treatment and protection that artists typically enjoy.
Which is a shame, both for Banksy and for those who enjoy art as a pure expressive exercise. It should be possible for someone to remain anonymous while controlling the art that they create, but the way things work makes it far more difficult to balance those interests. But such are the challenges presented to an artist that chooses to work as he does, as an anonymous figure using public spaces, either of which opens the door to commercial exploitation by others. It’s seemingly an uphill struggle, but it’s one that Banksy has managed for years now, so maybe he knows what he’s doing.