The issue of moral rights oftentimes comes up when the
author of some kind of work assigns or licenses to a third party, who then
adapts that work in such a way that the author is unhappy. Moral rights are
oftentimes believed to be associated with copyright rights. However, moral
rights are separate and distinct from copyright rights. Whether or not the
United States affectively recognizes moral rights is not entirely clear based
upon existing case law, but it is an area of law that deserves attention
especially in light of the questions surrounding moral rights.
Generally speaking, moral rights are comprised of four
different rights. These include the right of integrity, the right of
attribution, the right of disclosure, and the right to withdraw work from the
public. As noted above, the US has not recognized each of these rights to the
extent that European countries have. In the event that the United States Court
do recognize moral rights, they typically recognize them under the guise of other
legal theories, such as unfair competition, invasion of privacy, defamation,
and breach of contract. They may even be associated with copyright rights. For
example, one of the most publicized cases involving moral rights related to a
reliance upon copyright law and unfair competition principles to safeguard the
integrity rights of the Monty Python group. In the case of Gilliam v. American
Broadcasting Companies Inc from the Second Circuit, the court found that
"although the law seeks to vindicate the economic, rather than the
personal rights of authors...the economic incentive for
artistic...creation...cannot be reconciled with the inability of artists to
obtain relief from mutilation or misrepresentation of their work to the public,
on which the artists are financially dependent". This court recognized, in
the position that has been advanced since, that moral rights are distinct from
economic rights. The creator of a work should be able to protect its moral
rights in that particular work.
Ultimately, whether or not the author of a book, the creator
of a piece of visual artwork, or other copyright owner may be able to claim
moral rights is not entirely clear. That said, identifying when a moral rights
issue may exist and determining enforcement efforts related to those moral
rights can be a critical piece of any dispute, copyright or otherwise.
Therefore, speaking with a copyright attorney who has experience with moral
rights can help.
It is worth noting that the Visual Artists Rights Act of
1990 (VARA), set forth in 17 US 106a, is the first federal copyright
legislation to grant protection to moral rights. However, VARA is limited to
works of art that meet certain requirements. Whether or not VARA will lead to
additional legislation beyond paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, or still
photographic images, remains to be seen.