Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Moral Rights

"Moral rights" denotes a collection of certain rights of artists to control the fate of their works, especially the personal and reputational, rather than monetary, value of the work.

Historically, the laws of continental Europe have recognize pretty wide moral rights. Moral rights were not particularly recognized in American law, but that has been changing recently to some extent. Congress passed the Visual Arts Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) which provided rather limited “attribution” and “integrity” rights (which are types of moral rights) for certain narrowly defined classes of artistic works. Also, nine states enacted laws recognizing some moral rights prior to VARA.

When a recent work of art is to some extent threatened, the media often buzz loudly but briefly with stories about "moral rights" (as happened when Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc"was moved from its original downtown New York site a few years ago). But do moral rights do anything significant to help artists?

William Landes, an insightful economist who teaches in the University of Chicago Law School has looked into the matter pretty seriously in a recent paper, and his answers are a mix of the sadly predictable and the rather surprising.

Predictably, Mr. Landes finds that these laws may actually harm artists by adding contracting and transaction costs in the art market, although these costs are usually trivial because collectors have a strong self-interest in preserving the works in good condition. But he finds that the costs to artists may be large for certain types of works likely to be subject to destruction or alteration in the future - such as site-specific works and works installed in buildings.

Surprisingly, Mr. Landes finds that the state laws seem to have had no significant effect on artist earnings but a positive and significant effect on the number of artists living and working in the state.

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