Adler on Moral Rights

Amy Adler, NYU School of Law, has an essay in the most recent California Law Review, Against Moral Rights. From the introduction:

Moral rights scholarship is startling in its uniformity. Scholars take it as gospel that moral rights are crucial for art to flourish and that, if anything, we need a more robust moral rights doctrine. Commentators routinely lament the gap between our modest American moral rights laws and the more expansive European ones. In contrast to copyright law, which has produced a vibrantbody of scholarship critical of the law’s excesses, the main scholarly criticism of moral rights is that they do not reach far enough. Wading through the largely repetitive law review literature, it doesn’t take long to get the implicit message: if you don’t support moral rights, you’re a philistine who doesn’t understand the sanctity of art.

This essay seeks to undermine the foundations of moral rights scholarship, law, and theory. My argument is that moral rights laws endanger art in the name of protecting it. Drawing on contemporary art theory and practice, I focus on the moral right of “integrity,” called “the heart of the moral rights doctrine.” This right allows an artist to prevent modification and, in some cases, destruction of his art work. As I show, the right of integrity threatens art because it fails to recognize the profound artistic importance of modifying, even destroying, works of art, and of freeing art from the control of the artist. Ultimately, I question the most basic premise of moral rights law: that law should treat visual art as a uniquely prized category that merits exceptions from the normal rules of property and contract.

To put it mildly, this is not a popular argument. Indeed, it challenges the key assumptions of virtually all moral rights scholarship. But moral rights scholars have overlooked a surprising problem: the conception of “art” embedded in moral rights law has become obsolete. As a result, the law is on a collision course with the very art it seeks to defend. In fact, as I will show, moral rights are premised on the precise conception of “art” that artists have been rebelling against for the last forty years. Moral rights law thus purports to protect art, but does so by enshrining a vision of art that is directly at odds with contemporary artistic practice. It protects and reifies a notion of art that is dead. In this Essay I ask the question: does moral rights law make sense in an era in which “art,” at least as we have known it for centuries, is over?

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