Banksy’s latest artwork outside the French Embassy has already garnered much attention in the media and press. Those lucky enough to be in the area would have had the fleeting opportunity to view the artwork in person before developers first covered the artwork up, before re-revealing and then removing it from the site.

This approach is now common amongst the owners of the buildings or property where his artworks appear. They protect its value by removing the artwork for storage and resale but at the same time deny the public access to view the work. However, this approach appears to fly in the face of one of the original objectives of the artist in placing the protest piece in public.

With this in mind, Google has taken steps to take a digitised copy of the artwork for inclusion as part of Cultural Institute and Street View projects. This will again make the artwork accessible to a much wider public, potentially fulfilling and even enhancing the artist intended result. Yet in taking unilateral action without the express permission of the artist, Google are infringing the copyright in that artwork which remains the property of the artist himself. Having made a special effort to capture the image it is not as if Google can claim the artwork was only incidentally included.

Google previously has been accused of taken a brazen approach to copyright with issues arising in relation to the Google Books project amongst others, but Google would say that its actions are meant to support Banksy’s presumed intentions and that if they did not take that action swiftly the opportunity would be lost.  They may even argue that there was an implied consent from the artist that anybody was free to capture, digitise and use the artwork by virtue of its public placement.

Google will also point out that there is little financial harm that will result from their actions, the copy will not adversely affect the value of the original and I am not aware of Banksy taking an active interest in licensing the use of his artworks. However, clearly the image is of value to Google as part of its database and as a way of reinforcing its reputation and brand. Given the details regarding Google’s tax arrangements and settlement with HMRC which have also emerged this week would the artist object to Google receiving that windfall as a result of his artistic skill and reputation?