In the world of intellectual property—specifically copyright—moral rights are a special set of rights that are owned by the author or creator of a work by virtue of their role as the author or creator.
The idea of copyright can be thought of as divided into two parts: economic rights and moral rights. The economic rights let someone sell access to a creative work, or otherwise exploit it for profit. The moral rights let someone control how a creative work is used in non-economic ways.
There are two major moral rights under the U.S. Copyright Act. These are (1) the right of attribution, also called the right of paternity; and (2) the right of integrity.
The right of attribution says that no matter who gets to exploit the economic rights in a copyrighted work (for example, no matter who it is licensed to), the author still has a right to be named as the author or creator. That is, the author must be named, must have a byline, etc.
The right of integrity says that the creator of a work gets to prevent any action that would destroy the “integrity” of the work. That is, if the author reasonably feels that making certain changes in a creative work would undermine the author’s creative intent, or the author’s “vision,” or something similar, then the author can prevent that change from being made, independent of any economic rights that another person may own by virtue of a license or ownership of the copyright.
What’s the status of moral rights under U.S. law? The United States Copyright Act grants moral rights to creators of visual works in Section 106A (See 17 U.S.C. § 106A). U.S. law doesn’t grant moral rights to creators of other types of copyrighted works, such as literary or musical works. U.S. law doesn’t hold moral rights in very high regard, and only included moral rights under pressure to conform with certain international treaties.
Moral rights are very rarely asserted in the U.S., and even more rarely is such as assertion given any weight by a court. Part of the reason for this is that any decently drafted legal document that grants a copyright license will include a waiver of all moral rights, even for works (like books) for which U.S. law doesn’t protect moral rights. Just in case (see below).
Moral rights come historically from France and are also sometimes called droit morale. In many countries in Europe, it is impossible for an author to give up his or her moral rights by contract. That is, if you have a contract with an author that grants you a copyright license and gives you all sorts of rights to do whatever you want with the author’s work, the author still retains the moral rights listed above (and others, as provided under French law). It doesn’t matter what your contract says. The French court will not enforce it if it tries to take away the author’s moral rights.
Often a contract will have an author “waive” moral rights instead of licensing or transferring them. That makes a lot more sense, but a court in Europe probably won’t enforce that either.
The challenge for someone based in the U.S. who is working with someone based in Europe is ensuring that U.S. law controls a contract to license a copyrighted work. And yet, international law generally says that many aspects of copyright are controlled by the country in which a copyrighted work was created, no matter where any license is subsequently granted.
The short answer: In the U.S., moral rights don’t really matter unless you’re a visual artist (sculptor, painter, graphic designer), but don’t forget to consider them when working out licensing terms, just in case. Outside the U.S., moral rights can have a huge impact on how you do business. Caveat Emptor.