What Has The Visual Arts Rights Act Of 1990 Accomplished?

February, 2001

In 1990 Congress enacted the Visual Arts Rights Act (VARA), which amended the U.S. Copyright statute to provide attribution and integrity rights, commonly called moral rights, for authors of works of visual art. Attribution rights give the artist the right to claim authorship of a work he created and to disclaim authorship if his work is altered in a manner “prejudicial to his honor or reputation.” Integrity rights prohibit the intentional distortion, mutilation or other alteration of the artist’s work that injures his honor or reputation, and makes actionable the intentional or grossly negligent destruction of a work of recognized stature.

In contrast to the United States, most countries in Western Europe have a long tradition of recognizing moral rights. France recognized moral rights as early as the 19th century. And since 1928, moral rights have been codified in provisions of the major international copyright treaty (known as the Berne Convention), which today has more than 100 signatory countries. Within the United States, nine states starting with California in 1979 enacted moral rights laws prior to the passage of VARA.

In this paper, I examine the law and economics of VARA and present some empirical findings on moral rights laws. The paper is organized as follows. Part II sets out the various provisions and limitations of VARA. Part III reviews the economic analysis of the effects of VARA on the art market. Part IV looks at the few cases that have been decided under VARA and shows that, consistent with the predictions of economics, these cases involve large scale sculptural works that are likely to be destroyed or substantially altered as a result of building renovation or real estate development. Part V contains an empirical analysis of state moral rights laws. Here I try to explain why some states passed these laws and others did not, and the effects of state laws on the art market. The empirical analysis of state laws bears on the question why a federal statute was enacted. Finally, Part VI presents some concluding remarks.

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