Modification and Destruction of Artists' Works

In the past, artists in the United States had virtually no power to protect their work from mutilation, destruction or misattribution in instances of modification of their works. In 1990, Congress amended the Copyright Act of 1976 to include the Visual Artists Rights Act (Section 106A), which provides for the rights of attribution and the physical integrity of certain works of art. These rights (known as "moral rights") apply only to "work[s] of visual art", including: 

  • a painting, drawing, print, or sculpture, existing in a single copy, in a limited edition of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered by the author, or, in the case of a sculpture, in multiple casts, carved, or fabricated, sculptures of two hundred or fewer that are consecutively numbered by the author and bear the signature or other identifying mark of the author, or;

  • a still photographic image produced for exhibition purposes only, existing in a single copy that is signed by the author, or in a limited edition of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered by the author.

Section 106A is titled "Rights of certain authors to attribution and integrity" and specifically recognizes that authors of a work of visual art shall have the right:

  • to claim authorship of that work;

  • to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of any work of visual art which he or she did not create;

  • to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of the visual art in the event of a distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation; and

  • to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation; and

  • to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right.

For works created on or after December 1, 1990, VARA’s moral rights are granted for the life of the author. Works created before that date, but still owned by the author on that date, expire at the same time as the copyright.

Under VARA, unlike copyright infringement, an artist has a cause of action in a federal court even if his artwork is not registered with the Copyright Office. However, because the burden of proof on the artist diminishes and the amount of monetary damages could increase if an artwork is registered before an infringement, an artist should register his or her copyright as soon as possible. Artists should realize that while VARA establishes specific federal causes of action, state statutes often provide additional protections.

The full text of the Visual Artists Rights Act can be found here

Related Cases

Carter v. Helmsley-Spear, Inc.--Artists sued the owners for removing their commissioned site-specific sculptures. 

Kelley v. Chicago Park District--Kelley objected to the Chicago Parks' reconfiguration of his sculpture made of flowers titled "Wildflower Works". 

Kleinman v. City of San Marcos--San Marcos required Kleinman to remove artwork made from a junked car for violating a junked car law. 

Serra v. U.S. General Services Administration--Serra was commissioned to create a site-specific sculpture for the plaza next to a federal office complex. The government decided to move the work, and Serra asserted his VARA rights. 

Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association--Wojnarowicz sought to stop an American Family Association pamphlet which condemned the NEA's funding of Wojnarowicz's works. The pamphlet included images from the film. 

These materials are not intended, and should not be used, as legal advice. They necessarily contain generalizations that are not applicable in all jurisdictions or circumstances. Moreover, court decisions may be superseded by subsequent rulings, and may be subject to alternative interpretations. Corrections, clarification, and additions are welcome here.