Many nations assign to artists moral rights over their creations. One of the core moral rights is the right to claim or exclude works of art in your body of work. But not in the United States. NPR reports on the bizarre case involving Peter Doig and the art he’s trying to disclaim.
The National Historic Preservation Act has come to the rescue of this mural from 1976, which is badly in need of conservation. But in the process a federal court has muddled the Moral Rights of Artists moving forward. The mural on the Prado Dam near Corona, California was painted by High School students from Corona High School. The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the dam and spillway planned to remove the mural over concerns of lead paint, tagged graffiti artists who replaced the 1776 with “TOPS”. Carolina Miranda reported for the L.A. Times in June that the image “has become one of the region’s more iconic, unofficial freeway landmarks”. Two groups sought protection in Federal Court for the mural, both the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, and one of the original artists and designers of the mural, Ronald Kammeyer.
First, the Court accepted (and perhaps the government failed even to understand to challenge) that the plaintiffs have any VARA rights at all. They almost certainly do not. VARA rights exist from the date of creation and for the life of the author. They cannot be assigned or inherited. That standard applies, as with most laws, to anything created after the effective date of the statute. But what about earlier works? The Supreme Court has long held that statutes do not have retroactive effect unless they say so explicitly. VARA does, but in an usual way:
‘With respect to works of visual art created before the effective date set forth in section 610(a) of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, but title to which has not, as of such effective date, been transferred from the author, the rights conferred by subsection (a) shall be coextensive with, and shall expire at the same time as, the rights conferred by section 106.’
The mural predates the effective date of VARA, obviously. So the plaintiffs—if they are the “Author”—could only assert VARA rights if they had not transferred title to the physical work (not the copyright, which one or more of them undoubtedly still holds). But none of the plaintiffs claimed to own the mural, either when it was painted or now. Someone, possibly Kammeyer alone, possibly Kammeyer jointly with the volunteers who helped him, owns the copyright. That will endure either alone or as joint work, under the term of copyright. But could any of them claim to have owned title to the physical work in 1976? On a federally-owned flood management dam? It seems a stretch.
The opinion misses this threshold question entirely. Second, VARA is absolutely a “lifelong” veto when it applies. That is exactly what it is supposed to endow on the artist.
Good writing matters, both in drafting judicial opinions and also in drafting legislation. The Court and attorneys could be given at least a little reprieve from us as the act it self is terribly arcane. Congress did us no favors when drafting this piece of legislation. I have to agree with O’Donnell—when there are so few judicial opinions in the United States which take up the moral rights of artists, to miss so badly on some key provisions is a missed opportunity.
- Kammeyer v. Oneida Total Integrated Enterprises, No. EDCV15869JGBKKX, 2015 WL 5031959 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 24, 2015).
- Nicholas O’Donnell, New VARA Ruling Muddies Analysis on Moral Rights and Significance of “Site Specific” Art Art Law Report (2015), http://www.artlawreport.com/2015/11/12/new-vara-ruling-muddies-analysis-on-moral-rights-and-significance-of-site-specific-art/.
- Carolina A. Miranda, Court order halts destruction of Prado Dam bicentennial mural in Corona latimes.com (2015), http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-restraining-order-temporarily-halts-destruction-of-40-year-old-mural-on-prado-dam-20150609-column.html .
Christopher Buccafusco, a Professor at Cardozo Law School has posted on SSRN a draft of his work forthcoming in the Virginia Law Review titled “Copyright Authorship”. From the abstract:
The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to grant rights to “Authors” for their “Writings.” Despite the centrality of these terms to copyright jurisprudence, neither the courts nor scholars have provided coherent theories about what makes a person an author or what makes a thing a writing. This article articulates and defends a theory of copyrightable authorship. It argues that authorship involves the intentional creation of mental effects in an audience. A writing, then, is any fixed medium capable of producing mental effects. According to this theory, copyright attaches to the original, fixed, and minimally creative form or manner in which an author creates mental effects.
After setting out the theory, this article applies it to a series of current copyright disputes. My authorship theory both expands and contracts the scope of potentially copyrightable works. Some media that have previously been excluded from copyright law, such as gardens, cuisine, and tactile works, now fall within the constitutional grant of rights. By contrast, aspects of copyrightable works, including photographs, taxonomies, and computer programs, may not constitute copyrightable authorship. This theory resolves a number of current and recent copyright cases, and it offers a new approach to the emerging challenges associated with artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, and, ultimately, the impending revision of the Copyright Act.
Buccafusco, Christopher, A Theory of Copyright Authorship (September 23, 2015). Virginia Law Review, 2016, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2664891
The legal battle over 5Pointz has entered a new phase this week, as a complaint by some of the artists whose works were destroyed when the building was whitewashed has been filed in Federal Court. Though this may seem to be a new suit or new proceeding, it really should be viewed as a continuation of the dispute that has been ongoing since 2013 and earlier. Only instead of asking a court to prevent the destruction of the works at issue, now the artists are seeking compensation for the actual destruction of the works when they were whitewashed. Nicholas O’Donnell has kindly posted this new complaint on his blog, and he argues that one interesting thing to watch in the dispute, is the measure of damages: Continue reading “5Pointz Suit Continues”
Good luck to all the teams fighting over the Blue Pineapple in Chicago at the National Cultural Heritage Law Moot Court competition this weekend! This competition is put together by DePaul College of Law with the help of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. It’s a great showcase for these soon-to-be-lawyers and this field. A bit about this year’s problem:
The 2015 Competition will focus on constitutional challenges to the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), 17 U.S.C. § 106A, which protects visual artists’ moral rights of attribution and integrity. The problem will address both a First Amendment and a Fifth Amendment challenge to VARA.
Cultural heritage law deals with our most prized possessions and often spans beyond national borders, and, inevitably, has become the subject of often contentious legal debates and policies. This dynamic and growing legal field deals with the issues that arise as our society comes to appreciate the important symbolic, historical and emotional role that cultural heritage plays in our lives. It encompasses several disparate areas: protection of archaeological sites; preservation of historic structures and the built environment; preservation of and respect for both tangible and intangible indigenous cultural heritage; the international market in art works and antiquities; and recovery of stolen art works.
And Chicago must be the place to be for art and cultural heritage law this weekend, as the University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium will also be hosting a two-day conference titled: ‘Archaeological Looting: Realities and Possibilities for New Policy Approaches’.
In 2001 a number of artists including Chuck Close, Laddie John Dill, and the estates of Robert Graham and Sam Francis brought suit against auction houses and eBay to receive royalties they had been owed under California’s Resale Royalty Act. That Moral Rights legislation provided that visual artists should receive 5% of the resale price when their work was resold by a California resident, or resold in the state of California for more than $1,000. The District Court struck down the law as unconstitutional on the grounds that commerce like this must be regulated at the federal level under the Commerce Clause to the Constitution. Continue reading “Ninth Circuit to hear Artist’s Resale Rights Appeal”
Two interesting recent discussions of Moral Rights have appeared in the Texas Law Review.
First, in a student note, Lindsey Mills (Moral Rights: Well-Intentioned Protection and Its Unintended Consequences) argues that “by taking away ownership rights that purchasers of artwork would otherwise have, [moral rights legislation] diminishes the economic value of the artwork in question and further, to the extent that artistic expression is deemed desirable, harms society as a whole. After weighing these interests against each other, she concludes that moral rights protection has no place in the United States, let alone as part of the Copyright Act.”
In a follow up, Prof. Robert Bird responds (Of Geese, Ribbons, and Creative Destruction: Moral Rights and Its Consequences) with his own “misgivings based on her discussions of a Canadian moral rights case and artistic destruction. Professor Bird concludes with an appeal to pragmatism in light of “artistic doomsday rhetoric” against moral rights protections in American law.”