Moral Rights

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How would you feel if someone defaced, mutilated, destroyed or simply threw out your art? How would you feel if someone displayed your artwork but put their name or someone else’s name as the artist? Would you feel a piece of yourself was destroyed also?

Moral Rights protect against art destruction, art misrepresentation and false credit. Copyright law protects the economic interests of the artist and follows the work, not the artist. Moral rights protect the artist’s personal interests in and for the art made by the artist. In most of the countries that have laws protecting Moral Rights the artist or his or her representatives cannot recover money damages.  The court will, however, issue orders that prevent harm to the artwork or to the reputation of the artist.

There are four major forms of Moral Rights: The Right of Integrity, The Right of Attribution, The Right Disclosure and The Right of Withdrawal.

  • Right of Integrity.

    The right protects against artwork being defaced, mutilated, destroyed or misrepresented in a way that damages the artist’s reputation.

  • The Right of Attribution.

    The right protects how the artist wishes to be credited, as well as false credit. For example, if an artist wishes to remain anonymous, use a pseudonym or just remain un-credited.

  • The Right of Disclosure.

    The right protects the artist’s interest in being the first decision maker on whether he or she wants the public to see, hear or read the work in question and the way in which the work will first be presented publicly.

  • The Right of Withdrawal.

    The right to withdraw a work from public view or distribution on the basis that the work somehow harms the artist’s reputation or standing as an artist.

Moral Rights make common sense because they are social rules of behavior.  It’s wrong to needlessly destroy an artwork. It’s wrong to alter an artwork so much that it no longer looks or reads or sounds as the artist wanted. It’s very wrong to take credit for art that you didn’t make. But there are some social rules that get incorporated into the laws of a country and some that are better left to people to sort out on their own.

Different countries have very different views, sometimes completely opposite ones, on Moral Rights. The divide centers on a philosophical difference.

Is being an artist like a trade or a business serving an essentially economic purpose of selling artworks? In this approach, very broad economic and trade protections are given under the copyright and trademark laws. Artists are incentivized, but to do business. The artwork becomes a commodity and essentially becomes divorced from it’s author.

Is being an artist a special and unique personal talent expressed for the benefit of the cultural wealth of the people? In this approach, the purpose of Copyright and Moral Rights laws tilt towards artistic control. Artists are protected because without special laws they will not feel free to produce their most revealing and culturally valuable works. Artistic expression is not a commodity even if individual artworks become so.

In France and Germany, the laws protect the author’s personality, not just economic interests. In France, Moral Rights last forever and pass on to the heirs and personal representatives of the artist, while economic rights do not. Moral Rights in France and Germany cannot be waived or transferred, while copyrights can. Artists are protected in France under French Moral Rights (Droit Morale) even if they are not French citizens or even living in France.

Moral Rights
Artist Creditkozispoon

A major, modern playwright specified that the five parts in his most famous play should only be performed by men. When a well-known producer in France after the author’s death tried to present the play with women, a French court stopped the play from being performed at the request of the author’s heirs. A 150 year old or more painting owned by a prominent French museum was hung next to other works that the heirs of the painter objected to. The museum was forced by a French court to move the painting to a different location. John Huston, an American film director made a classic black and white movie, The Asphalt Jungle. At the request of his daughter a French court stopped the distribution in France of a color version of the film owned and distributed by an American-owned studio.

In contrast, the United States provides very limited Moral Rights protection: only for rights of Integrity and Attribution and only for fine art and only if the work hasn’t been reproduced in more than 200 copies and only enforceable by a living artist. How come?  Many would say that the United States doesn’t respect the arts except as an economic engine for profit. More than other countries, the United States values open expression and Moral Rights are associated with interfering with how art is used by others once purchased. Major film companies, record companies, theaters and book publishers have long been subjected to serious Moral Rights lawsuits and claims in Europe. The United States wanted to avoid those. Finally, the only reason it has even this very weak law was so that the United States could qualify for an international treaty to protect copyrights and trademarks outside of the country. The motivation had nothing to do with protecting artists.

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