Writers’ rights with Moral Rights – a quick guide

A reader asked the other week what ‘Moral Right’ meant. It’s an interesting area for writers.

Wright_SydneyNov2011Moral right differs from copyright. You own copyright on anything you create, by default. The copyright holder, alone, has the right to copy the work, but also has the power to grant a license to others to do so. When you sign a publishing contract, you – as copyright holder – are granting them a license to reproduce your material. Usually the copyright holder receives a royalty for each copy sold under that license. However, copyright is transactable – you can sell that copyright, along with the licenses, to somebody else. Then they get the royalties from the sales of the work.

That’s how the Beatles’ back catalogue ended up with Michael Jackson, for instance. It’s also how the film rights for The Hobbit ended up where they did, because apparently Tolkien sold that particular right in 1969 to pay a tax bill.

Moral right is different. The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, issued in 1928,  defines it (article 6) as: “Independent 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, modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to the said work, which would be prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation.”

In other words, you have a right to be associated as author of your work – and a right to object to derogatory presentation of it, even if you’ve sold the copyright or signed a contract in which the copyright is owned by whoever’s commissioned the work.

The thing is, that right has to be actively asserted, which is why you often see the line ‘The author’s moral rights have been asserted’ on the imprint page. Sometimes, it may reflect only partial assertion of that right, and will say so – ‘The author’s moral right to be named as author of this work has been asserted’.

Publishers are well aware of it – which is why many include a clause in contracts stating that a line like this will be on the imprint page. It’s important. Copyright can be sold; moral right cannot, and it is reasonable that authors are not subjected to derogatory presentation of their work, even if it’s reprinted later.

Although most nations have signed, or recognise, the Berne Convention, the specifics of moral right in law differ from country to country.

My advice? I’m not an attorney or lawyer, but I figure asserting moral rights is part of the writing deal. Check out the precise details in your jurisdiction. If in doubt, consult your lawyer on it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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6 thoughts on “Writers’ rights with Moral Rights – a quick guide

    1. I don’t know if there is something I don’t know about Tolkien because if I knew it then I wouldn’t not know it. Or some similar tautology… I must confess that I have been at least as interested in how Tolkien wrote as what he wrote. A fascinating process. Not least because he broke all the rules, knowingly. The way The Lord Of The Rings in particular then keyed in to a society Tolkien had never written it for is fascinating from the sociological perspective and offers insights into the commonalities across generations where there was supposed to be a gap. All thought provoking at so many levels and all started by a modest and retiring Oxford don who had a vision of a new mythology for England.

  1. This answers a question I’ve had for a long time.
    Once when my wife and I were in a store we picked up a biography of Justin Bieber (a teen singer of questionable moral fiber over here in the US)–don’t ask me why we were looking at it–but we noticed that clause, “Justin Bieber asserts the moral right to be the author of this book.” Strangely enough, he wasn’t listed as any other form of author…
    The clause was written like that, instead of as you stated above, and ever since then my wife and I have had a running joke about how Bieber just goes around claiming authorship over things!
    Great post.

    1. That is one of the ways moral right is asserted. ‘Ivan Gottapseudonym asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work…’ In some jurisdictions the relevant authorising act can be added.

      We get news reports here in NZ of Mr Bieber’s antics but I know nothing about the kid (and don’t want to…).

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