Visual artist? You have enforceable “moral rights” in your artwork

On Behalf of | Sep 8, 2021 | Copyright Law |

A federal law called the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) provides protections for visual artists against physical alteration or false attribution of their artwork (referred to as artists’ “moral rights”). These rights are separate and distinct from other copyright protections that artists also enjoy under federal and common law.

Here’s an overview of VARA and how visual artists can use the moral rights it bestows to protect their works, honor, and reputation.

Artists’ moral rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act

Passed in 1990, the Visual Artists Rights Act enshrined in federal law a legal principle that had long been recognized in other parts of the world: that visual artists possess an inherent “moral” right in the integrity and attribution of works of art they create, even after they sell those works or otherwise transfer ownership of them. Under the law, a visual artist’s moral rights include:

  • The right to claim authorship of a work;
  • The right to prevent attribution to themselves of a work they did not create;
  • The right to prevent attribution to themselves of their own work, if it has been distorted, mutilated, or otherwise modified in a way that harms their honor and reputation;
  • The right to prevent the distortion, mutilation, or other modification of their work in a way that harms their honor and reputation; and
  • The right to prevent destruction  of their work if it is of “recognized stature.”

Visual artists who suffer harm from violations of these rights may seek redress by suing for damages and other remedies. Generally speaking, visual artists may enforce those rights even if they have not sought and received copyright registration of the artworks involved in their VARA claim.

VARA has a relatively narrow, but important reach. It applies to paintings (including some murals), drawings, prints, sculptures, and works of photography made for exhibition. The artist is the sole owner of those rights, and may waive or transfer them.

Illustrations of enforceable moral rights under VARA

Here are some practical examples of situations in which visual artists may hold others accountable for violations of moral rights under VARA:

  • A museum hangs an artist’s visual works without identifying the artist as the author, or misidentifies the author as someone else.
  • A gallery offers for sale a painting falsely attributed to the artist.
  • A developer proposes to tear down a sculpture or mural that has significant historical and cultural significance in the course of a building renovation project.

These are just a few examples. The important thing for visual artists to know is that they have rights — beyond copyright — in protecting their works, and that an experienced intellectual property attorney can assist them in enforcing those rights under VARA.