The Tale Of The Lady Who Was Asked To Waive Her Moral Rights By Her Client [UPDATED]

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A client asked me to review a contract given to her by a potential employer. It was a fair contract, offering her a good salary and a very generous profit-sharing arrangement if any of her projects generated income. Despite the beneficence of the employer, I told her not to sign the contract unless a small, but important provision, was removed. In fact, my exact words to her were, "Run. Run like hell." It was a single sentence near the end of the agreement that caused all the trouble:

Employee waives all moral rights to her work, including, but not limited to [list of potential projects] and will hold Employer harmless for any and all uses of her work.

"Moral rights," such as they exist in this country, are a gift, and asking an artist to waive them is a slap in the face. Here's why. Under Section 106A of the U.S. Copyright Act, artists are granted two very specific protections.

  1. The Right of Attribution. An artist has the right to take credit for her work regardless of who actually profits from the use of that work. It even applies if the artist sells off the copyright. For example, if you design a logo for a company and sell the copyright to the company, you still have the right to be named as the author and even display the logo in your portfolio
  2. The Right of Integrity. An artist has the right to prevent anyone from distorting, mutilating, or otherwise modifying her work in such a way that could harm her reputation. For example, if you create a logo for a client who later wants to alter that logo to include an obscene gesture, you can prevent them from doing that since it could negatively affect your reputation as the creator of that art.

Moral rights in the U.S. are notoriously limited, applying only to artists who create visual works such as paintings, graphic design, sculptures, and still photographs. If you're a musician or a filmmaker, well then you're out of luck. In those situations, it will be incumbent upon you to specify in writing that you retain the right of attribution and integrity since our current laws aren't interested in providing that protection (there's a movement in Hollywood to extend moral rights to film, but I don't see that happening anytime soon). As a rule, moral rights are a foreign concept in the U.S. - economic rights take precedence here - and really only exist because the Congress of 1990 didn't want to look like a bunch of barbaric assholes in front of the Europeans, whose moral rights laws are far more robust (the Congress of today is burdened by no such concern).

But as limited as they are here, they're still a gift. And by asking my client to waive her moral rights, the employer was asking her to NOT TAKE CREDIT FOR HER OWN WORK. I don't know about you, but that seems really problematic to me. The law does permit you to waive your moral rights, but why would you want to? If someone asks you not to take credit for your work, shouldn't they have a damn good reason to make that request? As an artist, accreditation is the backbone of your business. It's how you sell yourself. I've known hundreds of artists in my career and I can't think of a single situation where they would have benefitted from waiving their moral rights. If you can, then you're smarter than I.

Luckily for my client, the employer agreed to remove that sentence and restore her moral rights. But my advice to you is the same as that I gave to her. If a potential employer/client/partner asks you waive your moral rights, ask them to reconsider. And if they won't, run. Run like hell.

UPDATE: I just want to clarify something here. While the U.S. Copyright Act only gives moral rights protections to visual artists, ALL artists have the right to take credit for their work and display that work in a portfolio unless that right is waived by contract. The main difference between the moral rights protections under the Copyright Act and these other moral rights is that visual artists can use the Copyright Act to recover statutory damages - as much as $150,000 for each infringed work. If you're an artist who's not covered under the Copyright Act, you probably wouldn't be able to recover very much if your right of display or credit was violated.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA