Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990

In the United States, copyright protects an author's economic interest in a copyrighted work by granting the author--used in the general sense of creator rather than strictly a writer--exclusive control over the work's reproduction, distribution, sale, display, or performance. In France and in other European countries that have emulated the French system, both the economic and the moral right -- "le droit moral" -- of an author to his or her copyrighted works are recognized. Providing moral rights for authors of original works is also incorporated into the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, an international treaty that attempts to provide uniformity in copyright law across all countries.

However, although the United States is a signatory to the Berne Convention and has modified its copyright laws to incorporate some of its mandates, United States copyright law provides very narrow moral rights protection.

The moral rights of authors that are recognized in the Berne Convention are: (1) the right of attribution, which is the right to be identified as the author of a work or to be disassociated from a work such as by publishing a work anonymously or under a pseudonym; and (2) the right of integrity, which allows an author to prevent distortion or mutilation of the work. Additional moral rights granted by French law include the right to decide whether the work may be disclosed to the public, the right to withdraw a disclosed work from the public, and the right to reply to criticism of the work in the same medium in which the criticism was presented. Moral rights exist independently of any property rights in the copyrighted work and are kept by the author even if the copyrighted work is sold or transferred. Outside the United States, if another person owns the property right to a copyrighted work, the exercise of moral rights--such as ordering the publishing of a book to cease--may require the author to compensate the owner of the property right for any economic loss that results. In many jurisdictions, moral rights may be waived.


In the United States, moral rights are provided by the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), which was incorporated into the Copyright Act. Under VARA, moral rights are granted only to works of visual art, defined by the Copyright Act as a painting, drawing, print, sculpture or still photograph produced for exhibition purposes only. To qualify for rights granted by VARA, the work must be a single copy or a limited edition of 200 copies or less, each consecutively numbered and signed by the author. The Copyright Act specifically excludes from the definition of "work of visual art" textual works, motion pictures, maps, posters, technical drawings and diagrams, and electronic publications and databases. In contrast, under the Berne Convention, any of these works that were eligible for copyright would carry with them moral rights.

VARA provides rights of attribution and integrity for works of visual art. Under VARA, an author has the right to claim authorship of the work at issue and to prevent use of his or her name if the work is modified, mutilated, or distorted in such a way as to be prejudicial to the author's honor and reputation. An author also has the right to prevent a modification, mutilation, or distortion of a work. If a work is "of recognized stature," the author may prevent any destruction of the work, whether intentional or by gross negligence. Rights granted by VARA exist for the life time of the author of the work. They may not be transferred but may be waived by the author.

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