Moral Rights

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The concept of “moral rights” refers to certain rights of authors, granted under copyright law and recognized most prevalently in civil law countries.  As defined by the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, an international agreement governing copyright law, moral rights are the rights “to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation.”  After the U.S. became a signatory to the Berne Convention in 1989, the U.S. Congress passed the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), codified at 17 U.S.C. § 106A, granting moral rights in relation to works of visual art, as defined at 17 U.S.C. § 101.  Several states have passed moral rights laws, such as the California Art Preservation Act, codified at California Civil Code §987.  Where there are conflicts between such laws and VARA, the state laws may be preempted.

In continental Europe, moral rights are “inalienable and cannot be transferred or waived.” However, in the U.S., the moral rights applicable to works of visual art “may not be transferred, but those rights may be waived if the author expressly agrees to such waiver in a written instrument signed by the author.”

[Last updated in July of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]