Moral Rights: Love Me, Love My Book

By Richard Curtis

Today was one of the worst days of your writing career.

It began when the postman brought you an advance copy of your historical saga, an original paperback, and you started thumbing through it. To your dismay you discovered that over ten thousand words of text had been cut from your manuscript, and a number of sexy scenes modified if not downright bowdlerized. Your contract did give your publisher the right to make editorial changes, but you never dreamed they would go so far. You called your editor and were told the cuts were necessitated by pricing considerations, and the desexing had been performed to make the book more acceptable in certain markets.

No sooner had you recovered from that shock than you received a second in the form of galleys of a novel messengered to you by a packager you work for. The packager had engaged you as a writer-for-hire to write one of a series of novels it had created. Although the series is copyrighted in the packager's name, you'd insisted that your byline appear on your book. At the time you negotiated the contract, you thought that was a smart move. But when you started to review the galleys, you immediately realized that every sentence of your original text had been rewritten by the packager. Outraged, you phoned your packager, who informed you that as his company owns the copyright to your book, he could do anything he wanted to it.

As if these two horror stories weren't bad enough, you suffered the final insult when you attended a screening of the film made from a spy thriller you'd written several years earlier. You were, of course, not so naive as to believe the adaptation would be absolutely faithful to your story, but you were scarcely prepared for the monstrous perversion portrayed on the big screen that evening. Except for the basic premise, the producer had thrown out every idea, every tasteful scene, every line of dialogue in your book. Surrounded by friends and family, you slunk out of the screening room humiliated to the very core of your being. In a black rage, you phoned your lawyer. "Do you handle criminal cases?" you asked him.

"Some. Why?"

"Because I'm about to commit murder." You proceeded to describe in exquisitely graphic detail the butchery that had been perpetrated on your work.

"Okay," he finally said when you let him get a word in edgewise, "here's what I suggest you do. Go straight home, do not attempt to murder anybody. Take out the contracts on your books and examine them carefully. Then call me again and I'll tell you what I'm looking for. You may have a case on a variety of grounds, but I'd be especially interested in any references to something called 'Droit Moral'."

"Dwah wha'?"

"Droit moral. 'Moral right.' Bring your contracts to my office tomorrow. And don't forget your checkbook."

Tempting though it was to go on a killing spree, you took your attorney's advice and returned home, and after belting down a brandy straight you hauled out your contracts and pored over them, looking in particular for the phrase you had heard for the first time, droit moral. No luck in the contract for that historical, nor any in the one with your packager. But in the movie contract you struck pay dirt. Or so you thought at first. But as your finger traced the language your heart sank. You picked up the phone.

"No references to droit moral in my book contracts," you sighed to your attorney.

"I didn't expect any. And in the movie contract, you waived your moral right, yes?"

"Yes. So I guess that's the end of that."

"Not long ago I would have said yes," your attorney replies. "But there are signs that offer some encouragement. Whether or not the phrase appears in your contract, indeed even if you've waived your so-called moral rights, it may be that they are still recognized and enforced by the courts. I'll do a little research and have some thoughts for you when we meet tomorrow."

Your attorney is right, at least about the signs of change in the law, for an important event occurred on March 1, 1989, and it may presage some profound changes in the relationship between the buyers and sellers of literary and artistic works. On that date, the United States became a signatory of the Berne Convention, an international copyright treaty created to protect copyrighted works in the numerous countries that have signed it.

Included in the treaty is a provision giving artists the right to protect the integrity of their work even after it has been sold. That right is considered "perpetual, inalienable, and cannot be waived."

If your attorney didn't have time to research the Berne Convention and droit moral in great depth before you paid him a visit, he might have gotten an excellent summary out of The Rights of Authors, Artists and Other Creative People: The Basic ACLU Guide to Author and Artist Rights, an American Civil Liberties Union handbook written by Kenneth P. Norwick and Jerry Simon Chasen, and published in paperback by Southern Illinois University Press. He might even, as I did, phone Ken Norwick for a briefing. Mr. Norwick is legal counsel to the Association of Authors' Representatives.

Mr. Norwick and his book point out that moral rights are distinguished from the property rights - that is, the rights that you have under the copyright law - that you convey when you license your written work to publishers and producers. Droit moral is described as "non-property attributes of an intellectual and moral character which exist between a literary or artistic work and its author's personality; it is intended to protect his personality as well as his work."
In other words, the distortion or mutilation of a work of art or literature could be considered a slur on the character of that work's creator. If you are wondering whether Shootout at the Bensonhurst Riding Stables or Book #16 in the Galactic Humungoid science fiction series may accurately be defined as literature, you will be comforted to know that the law offers lots of leeway on that score.
Droit moral embraces three major components: the right of integrity of the work, the right of paternity, and the right of divulgation.

The right of integrity posits that a work is a direct expression of the creator's personality, and any harm done to that work reflects on the creator's identity itself. Unauthorized condensation of a literary work, expurgation of supposedly offensive passages, or rewriting of the text without permission are acts that might make it appear the author deliberatly designed the work that way, and subject him to unfounded criticism by his peers or condemnation by posterity. Even if critics feel the changes improve the work, those alterations misrepresent the author's original vision and are therefore a blot on his honor.

The right of paternity irrevocably associates the author's or artist's name with his work (or hers, though it's still called the right of paternity). Your byline cannot be taken off (or put on) without your express permission.

Finally, the right of divulgation gives artists and writers the right to decide at what point their work is finished and ready for exhibition or publication.

While principles of droit moral are widely accepted beyond our shores, they have generally been rejected, or at least not recognized, by the U.S. courts. Thus, because these rights are not usually accepted by the legal system, if you want the protection that they offer you must negotiate for them in your contracts. If, for instance, you wanted to reserve the option to withdraw your byline from a book, you would have to state that explicitly in your book contract.

There have been some promising legal developments in this area of the law in the U.S. in recent years. In 1983, New York State passed an Artists' Authorship Rights Act that, among other things, prohibited exhibition or publication of a work of fine art "in an altered, defaced, mutilated form" without the artist's consent. The law also gave artists the right to claim or disclaim authorship of their works of fine art. The artist who believes his rights under this law have been violated can sue for damages. Similar moral rights legislation has been enacted in California, too.
The New York State act is limited to "works of fine art," and there's the rub. As Ellen M. Kozak, a lawyer and author of Every Writer's Practical Guide to Copyright Law, quipped in a piece on the Berne Convention in the Science Fiction Writers of America Bulletin, "Writers need not apply." But that may no longer be the case if the droit moral provisions of Berne are liberally interpreted in future court challenges.

You can imagine that not everybody greeted the ratification of Berne by the United States with banquets and fireworks. In fact, many publishers and movie and television producers lobbied passionately against it, even though some aspects of it protected their own rights. This was because they feared that the recognition of moral rights in the Berne Convention would threaten the traditional ways in which they have been producing and publishing their works. In response to those fears, Congress declared that Berne neither expands nor limits authors' or artists' rights to object to unauthorized modification of their work. The current thinking, then, is that you must seek remedies in other legal areas.

This bleak view, however, may not necessarily prevail in the days and years ahead. In the first place, many courts have recognized rights remarkably similar to "moral rights" under the guise of traditional trademark and copyright (and even in some cases libel) law. In what may be the most important example, a court found that a television network's substantial, unauthorized editing for television of a Monty Python movie violated the group's rights under American trademark law. Second, many people believe that America's entry into the Berne Convention should provide the impetus for greater recognition of moral rights in this country, and it has already encouraged a movement to lobby Congress to enact specific moral rights protection for authors and artists.

Somewhere out there are authors who will one day suffer the indignities hypothesized at the beginning of this article, and they will seek the protection of the courts using the droit moral principles recognized in the Berne Convention. I'll be sitting in the gallery when it happens.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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