The Art Law Review: Moral Rights of the Artist, not a Trifle but a Token: an Updated US Perspective

Morality and all the incidents of morality are essential; as justice to the citizens, and personal liberty.2

On 11 March 2021, a two-week online auction held by Christie's New York featuring a single lot, a non-fungible token (NFT),3 created by the digital artist Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple,4 closed, ushering in a new era in art trading and collecting.5 Not only was the lot consigned directly by the artist, but it set a staggering record price for a digital artwork, which opened at US$100 and closed at US$69,346,250, and introduced new terminology and new possibilities, a fertile land for mining by contemporary artists and collectors. Minted on 16 February 2021 and entitled Everydays: The First 5000 Days, the lot was made up of digital sketches created between 2007 and 2021, most commenting on current events; more importantly, it popularised NFT as a household term. Christie's notified the winning bidders that they could make payments in ether, a specific type of cryptocurrency, with payment accepted from a handful of digital wallets maintained by specific service providers.6 Everydays was sold subject to jurisdictionally applicable artist's resale royalty.7

The Christie's auction both lent its impressive institutional gravitas to the burgeoning trade in NFTs and simply capitalised on the emerging trend. Earlier, in February 2021, another NFT created by Beeple, this one entitled Crossroads and owned by Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile, a Columbia University MBA and self-proclaimed digital art patron, sold in a secondary market for US$6.6 million at Nifty Gateway.8 The new owner of Crossroads is one Delphina Leucas but their exact identity is unknown.9 Reportedly, Beeple, a South Carolina-based artist with 1.8 million followers on Instagram as at February 2021, received 10 per cent from the buyer who accepted conditions of sale set up under Nifty Gateway's terms of services.

It was the Christie's sale that made most headlines and was swiftly followed by other high-yielding public sales (Sotheby's10 and Bonhams)11 and encouraged growing interest in NFTs as well as a proliferation of competing online markets (OpenSea, Rarible, SuperRare, Foundation, Myth Market, KnownOrigin, etc.) inviting artists to create and trade in NFTs. Getting a handle on NFTs, unique tokens created through smart contracts and associated with specific digital wallets, where a certificate of authenticity as well as resale royalty obligations are potentially part of the package, could assuage economic concerns and protect rights of artists and their heirs, as well as dealers and collectors.

In the United States, artists' rights, historically synonymous with economic rights, were typically protected under copyright law. Increasingly, moral rights of artists, those of 'a spiritual, non-economic and personal nature that exist independently of an artist's copyright in' their work have been coming to the fore, both on the federal and state level.12 The following is a review of cases arguing that moral rights 'spring from a belief that an artist in the process of creation injects his spirit into the work and that the artist's personality, as well as the integrity of the work' should be protected.13

i Defining and codifying moral rights

Moral rights, or droit moral (having originated in France), describe rights of creators in their artistic work that are not necessarily pecuniary, yet still integral to and arise from the idea that an artist's very being is included in the work that he or she creates. Recognition and evolution of visual artists' rights in the United States have been slow to develop, and the scope of moral rights enacted in the United States is limited.

Typically, moral rights are neither alienable or waivable; they last for the duration of an artist's lifetime and can survive for the benefit and discretion of an artist's estate even after the original work is finished or changes ownership through the stream of public commerce.14 The basic moral rights are as follows:

  1. right of attribution or authorship entitles the artist to:
    • be recognised by name for his or her work or permit the work to be published anonymously;
    • prevent a wrong person being named as the author of his or her work;
    • prevent having his or her name be associated with a work he or she did not create;
    • decline having his or her name be associated with a work that has been modified or distorted in such a way as having the authorship remain with the work is prejudicial to the artist; and
    • remove his or her name from the work in cases of mutilation or the artist's belief that the work is no longer true to its original creation;
  2. right of integrity prevents tampering or modifying the artwork without the artist's consent even after ownership in the artwork transfers;
  3. right of disclosure concerns the artist's reputation and provides that the artist has discretion to decide when and how his or her work can be made public; and
  4. resale royalty rights, a semi-economic right assuring that an artist may continue to benefit financially from commercial appreciation of his or her work in the secondary market by receiving a percentage of the sale proceeds.

These rights are enumerated in the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (the Convention) as Articles 6 bis15 and 14 ter.16 While the US is a signatory to the Convention,17 according to the US Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988, the Convention's acts and protocols are not self-executing under the US Constitution, and must be implemented through US legislation.

In 1990, parts of Article 6 bis were implemented in the US when Congress amended the Copyright Law and enacted the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA).18 VARA recognises some of the moral rights, namely the right of attribution,19 the right of integrity20 and, in the case of works of visual art of 'recognized stature',21 the right to prevent destruction.22

Limitations of VARA

VARA differs from Article 6 bis of the Convention by offering a limited coverage that expires on the year of the artist's death.23 Additionally, while artists' rights cannot be transferred under VARA, they may be waived through a written form signed by the author.24 Further, VARA does not offer economic benefits suggested under Article 14 ter of the Convention concerning resale royalty rights for fine artists when their works are sold in the secondary market.25 Under VARA, moral rights protection, if any, only applies to 'works of visual art', such as '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'.26 Books, photographs and other copyrightable content are not included in the working definition of 'a work of visual art'.27

ii VARA as applied through case law

The following selection of notable cases surveys the treatment of artists' rights in the US legal system and demonstrates courts' hesitance to find in favour of artists whose works were under threat. Too frequently courts ruled that VARA did not protects site-specific works,28 thus favouring the interest of real estate owners,29 municipal administrations30 and other commercial interests.31 Inherent throughout the sequence is the tension between the rights VARA creates and the 'conventional notions of property rights'.32

Recently, arguments have been made that where VARA fails to protect site-specific works, state law may be available to protect moral rights of artists whose works are subject to demolition or mutilation.33

i Ushering in VARA with Serra v. US General Services Administration

In 1986, renowned US sculptor Richard Serra sought legal protection to prevent his artwork, Tilted Arc (1981), a large public sculpture that was owned by the US General Services Administration (GSA), from removal and relocation from the Federal Plaza in Manhattan, New York.34 Serra created the sculpture on commission and sold it to GSA. Subsequently, GSA received hundreds of complaints from members of the general public, who claimed that the sculpture was an eyesore, hindered pedestrian traffic and was susceptible to vandalism.35

In 1988, just two years before VARA was enacted, the Second Circuit ruled against Serra's arguments for preservation of his site-specific art on the basis that he 'relinquished his own speech rights in the sculpture when he voluntarily sold it to GSA; if he wished to retain some degree of control as to the duration and location of the display of his work, he had the opportunity to bargain for such rights in making the contract for sale of his work'.36 In deciding against the artist, the court concluded that the artist was seeking a new rule from the judiciary, something reserved for Congress to regulate. The court opined:

We recognize that Courts considering . . . challenges by artists to governmental decisions to remove purchased works of art must proceed with some caution, lest a removal ostensibly based on unsuitable physical characteristics of the work or an unfavorable assessment of its aesthetic appeal camouflage an impermissible condemnation of political viewpoint . . . Government can be a significant patron of the arts. Its incentive to fulfill that role must not be dampened by unwarranted restrictions on its freedom to decide what to do with art it has purchased.37

Arriving in the wake of the Serra decision and in response to advocacy efforts for extending artists' rights, Congress created the very rule Serra would have needed to keep Tilted Arc in place: it added VARA as an amendment to the Copyright Act.38

ii Surveying VARA application in Carter v. Helmsley-Spear, Inc

The first important case to test how VARA could protect artists was brought by three professional sculptors: John Carter, John Swing and John Veronis (collectively, 'Jx3'),39 who, as plaintiffs, claimed that defendants (and later, appellees and cross appellants) tried to assert their rights of integrity against a real estate owner and managing agent (the 'defendants') of a commercial building in Queens, New York. Here, the artwork in question was commissioned by the former tenants of the building but it was not sold and all agreed that Jx3 retained copyright in their works. However, when the defendants resumed control of the premises, they forbade the artists from creating further artwork on the premises and informed Jx3 of plans to remove all existing art from the building. At trial, Jx3 obtained a permanent injunction preventing the defendants from removing, modifying or destroying a work of visual art from the building. However, the decision was reversed on appeal.

Despite quoting US poet Ralph Waldo Emerson's praise of indigenous arts in its 1995 opinion ('a country is not truly civilized where the arts, such as they have, are all imported, having no indigenous life'), the court sided with the defendants and allowed for Jx3's 'indigenous art' to be removed. This was either because VARA was 'relatively new'40 or because it 'did not mandate the preservation of art at all costs and without due regards for the rights of others',41 but the Carter court concluded that the piece commissioned from Jx3 was 'made for hire' and thus exempt from protections offered under VARA.42

iii Training ground for VARA in Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation v. Büchel

The bitter dispute between Christoph Büchel, a Swiss visual artist, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA or the Museum)43 offered a new test and an expanded application of VARA.44 Characterised by the Boston Globe as 'the ultimate how-not-to guide in the complicated world of installation art',45 it concerned an immense installation, with the working title Training Ground for Democracy, which would display a cinema, a jail, voting booths, a shooting range and other true-to-scale references to visual markers of democracy in everyday life.46 The project was not memorialised in writing and, following budgetary and creative disputes, abandoned.47 Mass MoCA's continued use of the artist's name in association with the modified work and the treatment and display of the unfinished installation were categorised as infringing on Büchel's moral rights; two court rulings followed.

The lower court sided with the museum and found that as a matter of law, Büchel's moral rights in an unfinished work and his exclusive rights to display it were not violated. On appeal, the First Circuit found that even though the artist did not complete the work, an unfinished installation nevertheless classified as a 'work of art' and the author had the right to integrity in his work.48 Hence, the Museum potentially infringed on the artist's rights.

In this decision, the court also addressed damages available to artists whose works were destroyed or whose reputations may have been injured as a result of a VARA violation. The Büchel court ultimately determined that a financial remedy did not arise automatically from the right to prevent offensive conduct. The artists would need to obtain adequate relief for the harms of false attribution by resorting to the damages contemplated under the Copyright Act and other traditional claims.49 Büchel's moral rights arguments regarding distortion of his work were rejected because '[a] separate moral right of disclosure (also known as the right of divulgation) . . . is not covered under VARA'.50 However, the exclusive right to publicly display his copyright-protected work under Section 106 of the Copyright Act survived. The case was remanded and then settled.51

iv Observing the Noland effect

Marc Jancou Fine Art Ltd v. Sotheby's, Inc

Moral rights codified by VARA could serve as a weapon (whether intentionally or not) to jeopardise the economic value of art by a living artist who decides to disavow authorship in his or her work. Artist Cady Noland, for example, on multiple occasions withdrew her authorship from the art she made. In 2013, the First Circuit affirmed a holding that an auction house (which had accepted a work on consignment from the defendant-collector) could lawfully withdraw an aluminium print attributed to Noland, Cowboys Milking (1990), with a high estimated value of US$300,000 from its auction after the artist disclaimed authorship in the work and demanded the lot be withdrawn. Noland believed the conservation work done to Cowboys Milking constituted detrimental changes that prejudiced her honour and reputation as an artist; she sought to assert 'her right to prevent the use of her name as its author'.52 Sotheby's consignment agreement with the defendant-collector allowed the auction house to unilaterally withdraw lots from sale, and, when faced with possible VARA claims, Sotheby's exercised its discretion to withdraw the lot.

The collector appealed the court's summary judgment ruling in favour of co-defendants Sotheby's and the artist. On appeal, the court affirmed the lower court's holding, explaining:

[i]n light of Noland's assertion and a report showing that the work had been damaged and restoration had been performed on it, Sotheby's did not breach the contract or its fiduciary duty to the plaintiff by withdrawing the work from auction.53

Noland v. Janssen

Ten years later, Noland commenced a moral rights case against a collector and his art dealers, trying to distance herself from yet another refurbished artwork.54 The case concerned a wooden sculpture, Log Cabin Façade (1990), which one of the defendants, a German art collector, purchased directly from the artist. In 1995, the collector received the artist's permission to weatherproof the sculpture, to display it outdoors. The sculpture, having been displayed outdoors on the bare ground, began to rot in some areas and the collector replaced the deteriorated portions in 2010.

In June 2020, district judge Paul Oetken ruled that, even after Noland filed a third amended complaint, her allegations that conservation work on Log Cabin Façade violated her moral rights were unconvincing. Noland conceded that her express authorisation to stain the sculpture created a derivative work that fell under the umbrella of VARA. The court found that artist's permission shifted copyright from the artist to the collector, thus empowering the collector to create the derivative that later underwent conservation.

As Judge Oetken explained, Noland's mere displeasure with the collector's conservation efforts did not afford her protection under VARA:

Noland does not contest that the sculpture did not initially qualify for protection under VARA. Rather, she argues that she authored a derivative work when she permitted Schürmann to stain the sculpture sometime after the effective date of the statute, and that derivative work is entitled to VARA protection. (Dkt. No. 96 at 16-20.) Even if the Court were to make many of the leaps required by Noland's line of reasoning – that the staining created a copyrightable derivative work, that the derivative work qualifies for protection under VARA, and that the marketing of the refurbished stained work violated those rights – Noland still would not prevail on her claim. That is because the author of the derivative work – and therefore the holder of any VARA rights vis-à-vis the staining – would be Schürmann, not Noland.55

v Missing resale royalty in Estate of Graham v. Sotheby's Inc

Unlike dozens of other nations, the US does not recognise the right of visual artists to receive a royalty when their original, tangible work of arts are resold. The dissimilar nature of copyright-protected materials (published books, music and visual arts) has created a disparity in the benefits afforded to authors of literary and audio works and visual artists. Whereas writers and musicians are able to capitalise on the volume of copies of their works sold, visual artists typically depend on the sale of the unique work of art at the primary market stage. A copy, or a derivative work, from the original work of art is valued significantly below the value of the original, which can only be legally sold once. Listed as Article 14 bis in the Berne Convention, a version of the model clause concerning resale rights has been incorporated into the legislation of over 70 countries worldwide, thus allowing their visual artists to collect a percentage from each subsequent sale of their works.

Despite multiple efforts to promulgate a national resale royalty right in the United States, the US Congress stopped short of including resale rights in the VARA amendment. The history of efforts to codify a federal resale royalty scheme in the United States is well documented.56 The lack of a federal resale royalty scheme effectively excludes US artists and their estates from participating in the financial appreciation of the artist's creative work that has been alienated through sales.57

Only one of the US states, California, has successfully passed a law allowing visual artists to partake in the economic appreciation of their works. However, in 2012, the Ninth Circuit found that the California Resale Royalties Act (CRRA)58 was unconstitutional, as it violated the dormant Commerce Clause of the US Constitution,59 conflicted with and thus violated the first sale doctrine of the Copyright Law60 and, where any protections survived for California-based transactions, the entire law was pre-empted by Section 301(a) of the later adapted 1976 Copyright Act.61

The underlying consolidated case, Estate of Graham v. Sotheby's,62 was initiated by artists and estates who brought a class action complaint against the leading auctioneers (including eBay, Christie's and Sotheby's) for failure to comply with CRRA, with regard to their own rights and the rights of similarly situated artists, including New York-based artist Chuck Close (born 1940), LA-based artist Laddie John Dill (born 1943), the California-based artist-endowed charitable foundation Sam Francis Foundation (established 1995) and the estate63 of the US-born Mexican sculptor Robert Graham (1938–2008). Typically severe competitors, the defendants objected vehemently to the validity and constitutionality of CRRA, arguing that it was pre-empted by the first-sale doctrine.64 Ironically, the two auction houses that have been the most vocal critics of US efforts to impose a resale royalty scheme65 have successfully modified their business practices in the United Kingdom, following the passing of the EU Directive requesting all EU Member States, including the UK, to collect artist resale royalty following public auctions. It is important to note that the concerns over potential market losses by US dealers who feared or predicted that UK art sales would drop following its adoption of the royalty scheme were ultimately unfounded.66

In light of the fact that the US does not have a resale royalty right scheme, there is no reciprocity and US artists are not eligible to collect royalties even in the jurisdictions where this practice is a norm, such as France and the UK, where both Sotheby's and Christie's have auction rooms and conduct sales. Artists and estates of deceased artists who qualify to collect resale royalties include nationals of any European Economic Area countries, such as Belgium. Even during 2020, comparable sales of artworks by the famous Belgian artist Rene Magritte (1898–1967), which took place in quick succession, one in London67 and one in the US,68 both generated substantial interest and sold in excess of their low estimates, with the main difference being the US sale collected no resale royalty, while the London sale, subject to artist resale rights provisions, had to account for and deliver funds to the Magritte Estate in Belgium.69

vi Opportunity for private law

Lack of a federal resale royalty right in the US should not necessarily prevent artists from asking for and negotiating resale royalty provisions in their sales contracts before 'first sale doctrine' takes root. As early as 1971, US-based artist Seth Siegelaub and attorney Robert Projansky put together a model agreement entitled 'Artist's Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement', designed to empower artists to negotiate their resale rights individually. More recently, in summer 2020, a non-profit organisation called Kadist made public its own model agreement to encourage artists and collectors to agree on setting aside some of the proceeds from the resale of art to be donated to charitable causes. Whether using a model agreement or negotiating independently, US artists may be incorporating resale royalty requirements into the private contracts they enter into with collectors to retain some economic interest in their creations.70

iii Moral rights outside of VARA

A survey of the limited moral rights of visual artists in the United States shows that artists have endured an uphill battle to protect the integrity of their work. Prior to the passing of VARA, artists had to rely on limited state regulations, private contracts, unfair competition doctrine, public interest and general copyright protections to preserve the integrity of their works.71 Even now, New York and other state laws offer additional protections to artists and art collectors.72

Typically, claims of violations of artists' rights are examined in the context of copyright law and its exceptions. However, notes of moral rights echo in many textbook disputes, even when VARA is not at issue. For example, in the case concerning the US artist Richard Prince's blatant appropriation of artistic photographs created by the French artist Patrick Cariou, the district court found copyright infringement and ordered that the defendants:

shall within ten days of the date of this Order deliver up for impounding, destruction, or other disposition, as plaintiff determines, all infringing copies of the Photographs, including the Paintings and unsold copies of the Canal Zone exhibition book, in their possession, custody, or control and all transparencies, plates, masters, tapes, film negatives, discs, and other articles for making such infringing copies.73

On appeal, the decision was reversed and no artworks were destroyed (an act that itself could have triggered a VARA discussion). Still, the lower court's temporary holding with its draconian disposition was reminiscent of the European traditions of destroying infringing and offensive works, such as those deemed forgeries of works protected by moral rights.74

Similarly, it is not easy to force an artist to create a work of art or 'deliver on the contract', even when avid collectors are armed with a consignment agreement and are paying to have the works created and delivered in time. Unlike a case decided in the Netherlands, where a court ordered specific performance and threatened a US$10,000/day penalty for an artist's non-performance under a contract with a collector,75 courts in the US are reluctant to force artists' creation. Consider, for example, the circumstances when collectors Joel Silver and Steven Tananbaum sued Jeff Koons and the Gagosian Gallery after Koons and the gallery failed to produce sculptures in accordance with the parties' contract. After the court did not readily grant damages or order specific performance, the Tananbaum claim was settled in 202076 and Silver's claim was discontinued in 2019.77

Eyeing the implications of VARA

Whereas most VARA claims have been resolved on grounds unrelated to moral rights (Carter) and settled prior to a final disposition on the facts (Büchel ), the 5Pointz case resulted in a clear deference to protecting moral rights.78 The most impressive part of this case for this author was the breadth of art historical material submitted to support the plaintiffs' position that aerosol art merited recognition and protection. During the trial, artist after artist took the stand to discuss his or her training and technique, professional trajectory, exhibition history and commercial success.

On 12 February 2018, in a 100-page decision, Judge Block awarded US$150,000 for each mural, collage and installation that was wrongfully and wilfully destroyed because the real estate developer's actions were the 'epitome of wilfulness' and he acted out of 'pure pique and revenge for the nerve of the plaintiffs to sue to attempt to prevent the destruction of their art'.79 Forty-nine pages in the decision were its Appendix, almost an exhibition catalogue of street art, listing each plaintiff by name and reproducing at least one of his or her works of art from the former 'repository of the largest collection of exterior aerosol art . . . in the United States'.80

On 5 October 2020, the United States Supreme Court declined to review a landmark decision from the Second Circuit awarding US$6.75 million, maximum statutory damages, to street artists whose artworks were mutilated and destroyed at an abandoned industrial complex in Long Island, New York, better known as 5Pointz or the Graffiti Mecca.81 The dispute over 5Pointz was first heard by the Eastern District of New York on a temporary restraining order (TRO) application, when almost two dozen street artists tried to protect their legal graffiti site from demolition. After the TRO was lifted, frustrated by the 5Pointz artists' failed attempt to enjoin demolition of their Graffiti Mecca and his property, the real estate owner, Gerald Wolkoff, hired a painting crew to whitewash the buildings, destroying dozens of installations and murals, and triggering allegations of violating artists' moral rights to the integrity of their works. On appeal, the Second Circuit agreed that art at 5Pointz gained recognised stature and the actions of the real estate developer were in violation of VARA.82 In the US, moral rights of visual artists are usually narrowly enforced, especially in the context of disputes concerning real estate. However, the rule that whitewashing ephemeral aerosol art on the walls of a derelict factory slated for demolition constitutes a violation of federal law is res judicata.83

The 5Pointz outcome, a staggering award for the wilful destruction of 45 artworks in violation of moral rights, is a rare win for the members of the creative community.84 It certainly serves as a cautionary tale to other real property owners to think carefully before allowing artists to create on their walls without clearly defined parameters of engagement. Similarly, museum administrators, art collectors and conservators who engage with artists in arm's-length dealings for exhibitions, commissions or collecting purposes need to recognise the possible conflicts of interest and the legal mechanisms that exist to protect artists and their creations.

Looking at the 5Pointz ruling in isolation, US street artists and fine artists alike might feel empowered. Over the course of 2020 and into 2021, courts in different states have seen an increase in cases brought by artists alleging violation of their moral rights pursuant to VARA. Some have been dismissed on federal law grounds but remain pending pursuant to determination of whether and if state laws are able to protect moral rights independently.85 However, owners or real estate operators are treading carefully when dealing with artists, and are likely to insist on artists' waiving their VARA rights before ever allowing them to install their works. The conflict between protection of artists' rights and property rights is ongoing.86

The new frontier offered by the emergence of NFT sales and new markets is poised to address the subject of resale royalty if not other moral rights, such as attributions. The unique nature of smart contracts recorded on the blockchain seems particularly amenable to reverting a portion of sale to the original creator, as each sale and the ultimate beneficial owner is documented with each new transaction. The percentage due as resale royalty is set by each platform independently and ranges from 1 per cent to 10 per cent.

Statutorily, moral rights of artists in the United States are poorly protected and narrowly enforced. As soon as US artists die, their moral rights evaporate altogether. The cavalier rather than chivalrous attitude towards the vision and the will of the artist persists as tastes and emphasis change. Consider, for example, museums deaccessioning art that was once donated directly by an artist.87 Similarly, consider the trend of covering up or removing the New Deal-Era murals from schools and court houses,88 which is evocative of the problem posed by Serra's Tilted Arc in the 1980s. Until the US Supreme Court reviews a VARA case, or Congress amends the Copyright Law to include a resale royalty provision, artists and their advocates remain limited by the available moral rights protections, and have to be creative in using public and private law to protect artists' rights. For digital artists, the ability to enforce some of their moral rights is becoming easier, at least on the screen.


1 Irina Tarsis is the founder and managing director of the Center for Art Law.

2 Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Society and Solitude, Vol. VII (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 17.

3 ID: 40913.

4 Born 1981.

5 Christie's, 'Beeple | The First 5000 Days' Online Auction 20447, 25 February–11 March 2021, available at

6 Christie's agreed to accept cryptocurrency from the following wallet service providers: Coinbase Custody Trust; Coinbase, Inc, Fidelity Digital Assets Services, LLC, Gemini Trust Company, LLC; and Paxos Trust Company, LLC.

8 Tessa Solomon, 'Beeple NFT Artwork Sells for $6.6 M. Ahead of Viral Christie's Auction', ArtNews (25 February 2021), available at

9 See, for example, 'Which Ethereum user bought Beeple's “Crossroad” NFT video for $6.6 million?', available at

10 Sotheby's, 'Natively Digital: A Curated NFT Sale', 3–10 June 2021 available at

11 Bonham's, 'CryptOGs: The Pioneers of NFT Art', 21–30 June 2021, available at

12 Rivera v. Mendez & Co., 824 F. Supp. 2d 265, 267 (D.P.R. 2011).

13 The Estate of José Antonio Torres Martinó citing Massachusetts Museum Of Contemp. Art Found., Inc. v. Buchel, 593 F.3d 38, 47 (1st Cir. 2010).

14 See Ralph E Lerner and Judith Bresler, Art Law: The Guide for Collectors, Investors, Dealers & Artists, Fourth edition (Practising Law Institute, 2020), Chapter 12: Moral Rights, 1071–1165.

15 '1. To claim authorship; to object to certain modifications and other derogatory actions; 2. After the author's death; 3. Means of redress: (1) Independently of the author's economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation. (2) The rights granted to the author in accordance with the preceding paragraph shall, after his death, be maintained, at least until the expiry of the economic rights, and shall be exercisable by the persons or institutions authorized by the legislation of the country where protection is claimed. However, those countries whose legislation, at the moment of their ratification of or accession to this Act, does not provide for the protection after the death of the author of all the rights set out in the preceding paragraph may provide that some of these rights may, after his death, cease to be maintained. (3) The means of redress for safeguarding the rights granted by this Article shall be governed by the legislation of the country where protection is claimed.' The Berne Convention, Article 6 bis (Paris Act 1971), 828 U.N.T.S. 221.

16 '(1) The author, or after his death the persons or institutions authorized by national legislation, shall, with respect to original works of art and original manuscripts of writers and composers, enjoy the inalienable right to an interest in any sale of the work subsequent to the first transfer by the author of the work. (2) The protection provided by the preceding paragraph may be claimed in a country of the Union only if legislation in the country to which the author belongs so permits, and to the extent permitted by the country where this protection is claimed. (3) The procedure for collection and the amounts shall be matters for determination by national legislation.' The Berne Convention, Article 14 ter (Paris Act 1971), 828 U.N.T.S. 221.

17 'International Copyright relations of the United States: Circular 38A', p. 2, available at; also see 31 October 1988. H.R. 4262 (100th Congress), Public Law No. 100-568 (1988).

18 Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, Public Law No. 101-650.

19 Joncou v. Sotheby's and Nolan, 988 F Supp 2d 212 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (the artist asked an auction house not to sell a work attributed to her because the artwork Cowboys Milking, a silkscreen print, was damaged and selling it in this condition would prejudice 'her honor and reputation').

20 Mass. MOCA Found., Inc. v. Büchel, 593 F3d 38 (1st Cir. 2010) (VARA claim succeeded because the artist did not authorise the museum to use his name in connection to an unfinished and contested installation).

21 Christopher J Robinson, 'The “Recognized Stature” Standard in the Visual Artists Rights Act', 68 Fordham L. Rev. 1935 (2000).

22 Rights of Certain Authors to Attribution and Integrity: '(a) Rights of Attribution and Integrity. [S]ubject to section 107 and independent of the exclusive rights provided in section 106, the author of a work of visual art . . . (1) shall have the right . . . (A) to claim authorship of that work, and (B) 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; (2) shall have the right to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of the work of 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 (3) subject to the limitations set forth in section 113(d), shall have the right . . . (A) to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right, and (B) 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.' 17 U.S.C. § 106A(a). Other moral rights that are not codified by VARA include inalienability of moral rights, rights surviving and vesting with artists' heirs, resale royalty right and right of divulgation (if, when and how to make an artist's work available to the public and under what name). Some cases that postdate VARA may have turned out differently had the US Congress included additional moral rights. See, for example, Herstand & Co. v. Gallery, 211 A.D.2d 77, 626 N.Y.S.2d 74 (App. Div. 1995) (noting possible personal animus expressed by the artist when disavowing his works); see TriStar Pictures v. Director's Guild of America, 160 F.3d 537 (9th Cir. 1998) (affirming the arbitration finding that either the name of the director has to be removed or a film with severe edits has to appear with a disclaimer that the film was butchered).

23 VARA does not allow the moral rights to last as long as other copyrights last. They expire with the death of the artist. Thus the right to (dis)claim ownership is not vested in the heirs or other copyright holders.

24 17 U.S.C. § 106A(e).

25 To learn more about the debate of introducing resale rights in the United States, see US Copyright Office, Office of the Register of Copyrights Report, 'Resale Royalties: An Updated Analysis' (December 2013), available at; also see Sam Francis Foundation v. Christie's, Inc., 784 F.3d 1320 (9th Cir. 2015), aff'ing Estate of Graham v. Sotheby's Inc., 860 F. Supp. 2d 1117 (C.D. Cal. 2012). Also see, Tiernan Morgan and Lauren Purje, 'An Illustrated Guide to Artist Resale Royalties', Hyperallergic (24 October 2014),

26 17 U.S.C. § 101.

27 See, for example, Purohit v. Legend Pictures, LLC, 448 F. Supp. 3d 382 (D. Del. 2020) (holding a book sold from an edition of more than 500 copies was not eligible for moral rights protection under § 106A).

28 Phillips v. Pembroke Real Estate, Inc., 459 F.3d 128 (1st Cir. 2006) (the VARA claim failed because the works were deemed site-specific and thus not protected). See also, The Estate of José Antonio Torres Martinó v. Fountain Christian Bilingual School Carolina, Inc. et al., 2021 WL 4586315 (5 October 2021).

29 Carter v. Helmsley-Spear, Inc., 71 F.3d 77 (2d Cir. 1995) (the VARA claim failed because the works were found to have been made for hire).

30 Kelley v. Chicago Park Dist., 635 F.3d 290 (7th Cir. 2011) (the VARA claim failed because the artist's garden could not qualify for moral rights protection under VARA because the garden was neither 'authored' nor 'fixed' in senses required for basic copyright).

31 See, for example, Tobin v. The Rector, Church-Wardens, and Vestrymen of Trinity Church, 17-cv-02622 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 2017) (affirmed 13 September 2018); Cheffins v. Stewart, 825 F3d 588 (9th Cir 2016) (the VARA claim failed because the court found that the underlying object (a used school bus transformed into a mobile replica of a sixteenth-century Spanish galleon) was utilitarian in nature, an applied art, and thus not protected under the Copyright Act); Kleinman v. City of San Marcos (2010, CA5 Tex.) 597 F3d 323, cert. den. (2010, US) (holding that the VARA claims failed because the objects thought to be protected did not qualify as 'works of art' but rather as 'promotional' material outside of VARA protection).

32 Morton J Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law (Harvard University Press, 1977).

33 See, for example, Lipsky v. Spanierman Gallery, LLC and Artspace, LLC, 154805/2020 (Sup. Ct. NY, 10 June 2021), and The Estate of José Antonio Torres Martinó v. Fountain Christian Bilingual School Carolina, Inc et al., 2021 WL 4586315 (U.S.Ct. D.Puerto Rico, 5 October 2021).

34 Serra v. U.S. General Services Admin., 847 F.2d 1045 (2d Cir. 1988).

35 id., at 1048.

36 id., at 1047.

37 id., at 1051.

38 See Phillips v. Pembroke Real Estate, Inc., 459 F.3d 128 (1st Cir. 2006) (containing arguments by a sculptor for protection of site-specific art); Kelley v. Chicago Park District, No. 04-C-07715, 2008 WL 4449886, at *1 (N.D. Ill. 29 September 2008) (concerning non-traditional works of art that should be granted moral rights protection from destruction or removal).

39 71 F.3d 77 (2d Cir. 1995), reversing and vacating the grant of injunctive relief in Carter v. Helmsely-Spear, Inc., 861 F. Supp. 303 (S.D.N.Y. 1994).

40 id., at 84.

41 id., at 80.

42 It is instructive to note that the court in Carter was aware that 'the issue of federal protection of moral rights was a prominent hurdle in the debate of whether the United States should join the Berne Convention . . . [because its] protection of moral rights posed a significant difficulty to U.S. adherence' and cognisant of the fact that 'artists fared better in state legislatures than they generally had in Courts'. id., at 81 and 82.

43 593 F.3d 38 (1st Cir. 2010).

44 K E Gover, 'Christoph Büchel v. Mass MoCA: a tilted arc for the twenty-first century', Journal of Aesthetic Education 46, No. 1 (2012), 46–58.

45 Massachusetts Museum, Contemp. Art Foun. v. Büchel, 593 F.3d 38, 41 (1st Cir. 2010), citing Geoff Edgers, 'Dismantled', Boston Globe (21 October 2007),

46 Mass MoCA, 'Press Release: Training Ground for Democracy' (7 December 2010) (summarising the Museum's position and acknowledging that the parties settled),

47 K E Gover, 'Artistic Freedom and Moral Rights in Contemporary Art: The Mass MoCA Controversy', Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69, No. 4 (2011), 355–365.

48 593 F.3d 38, 57.

49 id., at 56.

50 593 F.3d 38, 62; citing Cyrill P Rigamonti, 'Deconstructing moral rights,' Harv. Int'l LJ 47 (2006), 353, 405.

51 593 F.3d 38, 65.

52 Marc Jancou Fine Art Ltd. v. Sotheby's, Inc., 2012 N.Y. Slip Op 33163 (Sup. Ct. 2012).

53 Marc Jancou Fine Art Ltd. v. Sotheby's, Inc., 107 A.D.3d 637, 967 N.Y.S.2d 649 (App. Div. 2013).

54 No. 17-CV-5452 (JPO) (S.D.N.Y. 1 June 2020).

55 Noland v. Janssen, No. 17-CV-5452 (JPO) (S.D.N.Y. 1 June 2020).

56 See, generally, US Copyright Office, 'Droit de Suite: The Artist's Resale Royalty' (December 1992) (the 1992 Copyright Report); Office of the Register of Copyrights, 'Report on Resale Royalties: An Updated Analysis' (December 2013), available at; see also Responses to Copyright Office's Notice of Inquiry re Resale Royalty Right, Docket No. 2012-10, 77 Fed. Reg. 58175 (19 September 2012), containing comments in support and in opposition of passing a federal resale royalty right, such as the comments of the Center for Art Law, available at; and comments of Sotheby's, Inc and Christie's Inc, available at

57 Artists may collect licensing fees for the right to reproduce their works but may not receive commission from the sale proceeds of the pieces. See US Copyright Office 1992 and 2012 reports.

58 Cal. Civ. Code § 986.

59 Estate of Graham v. Sotheby's Inc., 860 F. Supp. 2d 1117 (C.D. Cal. 2012).

60 17 U.S.C. §109(a). Estate of Graham v. Sotheby's, Inc., 178 F. Supp. 3d 974 (C.D. Cal. 2016). (finding that the Copyright Law 'prohibits copyright holders from exercising downstream distribution control of their products').

61 Estate of Graham v. Sotheby's, Inc., 894 F.3d 1061 (2018) (holding the California Resale Royalties Act (CRRA) to be 'short lived' whereby artists could 'only state claims for the period between the CRRA's effective date of January 1, 1977, and the 1976 Act's effective date of January 1, 1978').

62 860 F. Supp. 2d 1117 (C.D. Cal. 2012); Estate of Robert Graham v. Sotheby's Inc., C.D. Cal. No. 2:11-cv-08604-JHN-FFM, complaint filed 18 October 2011; Sam Francis Foundation v. Christie's Inc., C.D. Cal. No. 2:11-cv-08605-SVW-PJW, complaint filed 18 October 2011.

63 Estate of Graham v. Sotheby's, Inc., 178 F. Supp. 3d 974, 996 (C.D. Cal. 2016) (dismissing a claim from the Graham estate on the grounds that it had no standing, lacked the status of legal entity and suggesting that 'an individual, such as an executor, . . . appear on behalf of the Estate of Robert Graham to prosecute its claims'.)

64 17 U.S.C. § 109 – Limitations on exclusive rights.

65 See public comments submitted to the Copyright Office in 2012 by the auction houses arguing against the recognition and enforcement of federal resale royalty rights in the US, available at, 'Policy Studies: Resale Royalty Rights', Also see, for example, Sotheby's glossary explain that the artist resale right (or droit de suite) denotes a requirement imposed by the European Union's Artist's Resale Right Directive, 'which has been adopted by the United Kingdom, living artists and artists who died within 70 years prior to the date of the sale are entitled to receive a resale royalty each time their art work is sold by an art market professional in the European Union or United Kingdom, subject to certain conditions. Sotheby's will collect the resale royalty due to the artists or their estates from buyers of lots with a hammer price (excluding buyer's premium and excluding VAT) in excess of €1000. Any purchaser of a lot to which Artist's Resale Right applies will be charged the amount of the resale royalty, which will be added to the invoice. For more information on rates, view the Artist Resale Right Chart,' available at; Christie's, 'FQAs: Droit de Suite', available at

66 See 'UK's Artist Resale Royalty Law Didn't Damage the Art Market (Despite All the Claims)', Huffington Post, 14 September 2012.

67 Christie's sold A la rencontre du plaisir (1962): hammer price: £16.5 million; buyer's premium: £2,433,750; artist's royalty: €12,500; Christie's, 'London SALE 18340: The Art Of The Surreal Evening Sale (5 February 2020): Lot 32',

68 Sotheby's sold Rêverie de Monsieur James (1943): hammer price: US$4.2 million; buyer's premium: US$889,800; artist's royalty: US$0; Sotheby's, 'New York Sale, Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale (28 October 2020): Lot 104'.

69 WIPO, Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights Thirty-Fifth Session, Geneva, 13–17 November 2017, 'The Economic Implications of the Artist's Resale Right', available at

70 See, for example, Louise Carron, 'A Charitable Spin on Sale Agreements of Art', Center for Art Law (21 October 2020),; Laurel Wickersham Salisbury, 'It's Not That Easy: Artist Resale Royalty Rights and The ART Act', Center for Art Law (1 July 2019),

71 See, for example, Vargas v. Esquire, Inc., 164 F.2d 522, 527 (7th Cir. 1947) (a request for attribution by an artist against a magazine was rejected based on the terms of contract and because 'the concept of “moral rights” . . . so fully recognized and developed in the civil law countries has not yet received acceptance in the law of the United States') and Crimi v. Rutgers Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, 89 N.Y.S.2d 813 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1949) (a claim that removal of a mural from a wall was a violation of the artist's right of integrity was denied by a court that found destruction of an artwork does not injure the artist's reputation, unlike its display in an altered state). Other protections available under federal law include the First Amendment that may offer relief to artists who wish to protect their right from destruction or censorship. See Cara L Newman, 'Eyes Wide Open, Minds Wide Shut: Art, Obscenity, and the First Amendment in Contemporary America', 53 DePaul L. Rev. 121 (2003); see also Amy M Adler, 'Post-Modern Art and the Death of Obscenity Law', 99.6 Yale L.J. 1359 (1990).

72 See N.Y. Arts and Cultural Affairs Law § 12.01 (Consol. 2012) and Lipsky v. Spanierman Gallery, LLC et al., No. 154805/2020 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., filed on 29 June 2020) (the artist is seeking to stop the damage being done to her reputation by an art dealer).

73 Cariou v. Prince, 784 F. Supp. 2d 337 (S.D.N.Y. 2011), rev'ed in 714 F.3d 694 (2d Cir. 2013).

74 See, for example, Italian and French laws regarding destruction of works of art, Cyrill P Rigamonti, 'Deconstructing moral rights'. Harv. Int'l L.J. 47 (2006), 353. Sofia Komarova, 'Why not destroy this fake? A defence of the Chagall Committee', Apollo (6 March 2014), available at

75 [Bert Kreuk] v. [Danh Vō] C/10/442131 / HA ZA 14-57 Rechtbank Rotterdam ECL:NL:RBROT:2014:6962 (24 June 2015), available at

76 Steven Tananbaum v. Gagosian Gallery, Inc. and Jeff Koons LLC, Index No. 651889/2018.

77 Joel Silver v. Gagosian Gallery, Inc., No. 652090/2018.

78 Cohen et al., v. G&M Realty L.P, Wolkoff et al., 13-cv-05612(FB)(RLM) (E.D.N.Y. 12 February 2018), available at

79 For the analysis on how to assess the damages, J Block relied on the Bryant factors and reviewed the infringer's state of mind, expenses saved and profits earned by the infringer, revenue lost by the copyright holders, the deterrent effect on the infringer and third parties, the infringer's cooperation in providing evidence and the conduct of the parties. Bryant v. Media Right Prods., 603 F.3d 135 (2d Cir. 2010).

80 Cohen v. G & M Realty L.P., 988 F. Supp. 2d 212, 214 (E.D.N.Y. 2013).

81 Castillo v. G&M Realty L.P., 950 F.3d 155 (2d Cir. 2020), as amended (21 February 2020), aff'g 988 F. Supp. 2d 212 (E.D.N.Y. 2013), cert. denied (5 October 2020).

82 Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-650, 104 Stat. 5089, 5128 (1990). 17 U.S.C. § 106A.

83 In November 2020, the parties ultimately resolved questions of legal fees, awarding over US$2 million to the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. See, for example, Eileen Kinsella 'The Developer Who Painted Over the 5Pointz Graffiti Mecca Must Pay an Additional $2 Million to Cover the Artists' Legal Fees: The stipulation brings the fines associated with the case to $8.75 million', ArtNet News (30 November 2020), available at

84 Eileen Kinsella, 'A Stunning Legal Decision Just Upheld a $6.75 Million Victory for the Street Artists Whose Works Were Destroyed at the 5Pointz Graffiti Mecca', ArtNet News (20 February 2020), available at; Sara Cascone, 'It “Makes No Sense”: 5Pointz Developer Vows to Appeal Landmark Ruling That Favored Graffiti Artists', ArtNet News (21 February 2018), available at

85 The Estate of José Antonio Torres Martinó v. Fountain Christian Bilingual School Carolina, Inc et al., 2021 WL 4586315 (5 October 2021).

86 Amy M Adler, 'Against moral rights', Calif. L. Rev. 97 (2009), 263.

87 In 2018, Sotheyb's auctioned off a number of artworks to benefit the Berkshire Museum, MA. Sotheby's, 'American Art, 23 May 2018 Sale, Lot: 43 Norman Rockwell, Blacksmith's Boy (1940)',

88 See, for example, Olivia Taylor, 'Art in the Courtroom: Dealing with New Deal-era Murals – Part I', Center for Art Law (15 November 2018),; Alexa Díaz, 'School to cover up George Washington mural that depicts violence and slavery', LA Times (28 June 2019),

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