Like many couples, Brian Edwards and Thomas Privitere of New York celebrated their engagement by taking engagement photos. They hired photographer Kristina Hill in March 2010 and shared the photos on a blog that documented their upcoming wedding for friends and family.
This past summer, the now-married couple learned that an anti-gay organization known as “Public Advocate of the United States” (“PAUS”) had misappropriated one of the photos, showing the two kissing, to use as the background for, in the words of the Denver Post, “ugly campaign fliers” in Colorado, advocating against a candidate who had supported civil unions in that state. A second mailing, directed at another candidate, was also mailed out by the group.
Last week, Hill, Edwards, and Privitere filed a lawsuit against PAUS, alleging copyright infringement and appropriation of personality and likeness. The photograph, they argued, was not only exploited without permission, it was done to advocate for a position they are diametrically opposed to.
Mike Masnick recently wrote about the case — Why it’s tempting, but troubling, to use copyright as a stand in for moral rights — admitting that the use is likely infringing, but like with any enforcement of creator’s rights, found reason to criticize the lawsuit. Said Masnick:
I’m worried about the implications here. Copyright in the US is an economic right, not a moral one. Other countries may have “moral rights” or “droit moral” on photographs, but we don’t in the US. And it is clear that the copyright complaint is really entirely about the moral rights issue as it relates to copyright. There is no economic impact at issue here, because there is no economic interest in this image. There does not appear to be any plan or intent to license the image or exploit it economically in any way.
And, so, I worry when we start using moral rights arguments to defend a copyright claim, no matter how strongly I support the moral argument being advanced by the plaintiff.
This is reminiscent of his reaction decrying the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Monge v. Maya Magazines a few weeks ago, where the court held that fair use didn’t protect a tabloid that had published, without permission, private wedding photos that had been stolen from a couple.
Masnick is correct insofar as US Copyright law doesn’t protect “moral rights.” In copyright law, “moral rights” is a term of art, with a specific meaning. Also referred to as “droits moraux”, the term encompasses certain noneconomic rights, such as the right to attribution and a right of integrity.1 Generally speaking, these rights are not recognized in the US.2
But in a broader context, Masnick is incorrect. Copyright does recognize noneconomic interests — and the economic interests it recognizes go beyond a simple economic interest in commercial exploitation. Copyright, after all, gives creators the right to control a work, or “the right to say no“, and this right can often serve as a proxy to broader moral rights. In a sense, moral rights are “baked into” US copyright law.
We can turn to the courts to see what I mean.
The Copyright Act gives copyright owners the exclusive right “to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.”3 This right of distribution, among other things, gives authors the right of first publication.
The right of first publication, long an absolute in the common law (though that has been tempered in recent decades), is anything but an economic right. Rather, as the Supreme Court noted in Harper & Row v Nation Enterprises, “The right of first publication implicates a threshold decision by the author whether and in what form to release his work.”4 The Court noted earlier that “Publication of an author’s expression before he has authorized its dissemination seriously infringes the author’s right to decide when and whether it will be made public.”
This example shows that author’s right to control her work through copyright is just as vital as her right to remuneration. This right extends beyond just first publication. The Second Circuit wrote in Castle Rock Entertainment v Carol Publishing Group:
Although Castle Rock has evidenced little if any interest in exploiting this market for derivative works … the copyright law must respect that creative and economic choice. “It would … not serve the ends of the Copyright Act — i.e., to advance the arts — if artists were denied their monopoly over derivative versions of their creative works merely because they made the artistic decision not to saturate those markets with variations of their original.”5
Courts have also been clear that this right to control only applies as protection against commercial exploitation. In Sony Corp v Universal City Studios (the “Betamax” case), the Supreme Court stated, “Even copying for noncommercial purposes may impair the copyright holder’s ability to obtain the rewards that Congress intended him to have.”6 It goes on to point out that these rewards are not limited to monetary payments:
The copyright law does not require a copyright owner to charge a fee for the use of his works, and as this record clearly demonstrates, the owner of a copyright may well have economic or noneconomic reasons for permitting certain kinds of copying to occur without receiving direct compensation from the copier. It is not the role of the courts to tell copyright holders the best way for them to exploit their copyrights.
Other courts have endorsed this characterization of the rewards due authors.
In a 2000 case, the Ninth Circuit noted that the defendant’s distribution or an unauthorized version of plaintiff’s work harmed plaintiff’s “goodwill by diverting potential members and contributions.” It disagreed with defendant’s argument that plaintiff’s failure to exploit the work showed that the work had no economic value that unauthorized dissemination would adversely affect. Said the court, ”Even an author who had disavowed any intention to publish his work during his lifetime was entitled to protection of his copyright, first, because the relevant consideration was the ‘potential market’ and, second, because he has the right to change his mind.”7
This is obviously a very brief survey of how copyright law is not limited to purely economic rights. It isn’t “troubling”, as Masnick puts it, nor is it in any way novel, to use copyright to protect an image even though there is no “plan or intent to license the image or exploit it economically in any way.” What’s more troubling, in my opinion, is to strip the law of its humanity, place a dollar sign on everything, and view harm through the lens of a financial ledger. Copyright is more than just a right to remuneration; it “is deeply rooted in our conception of ourselves as individuals with at least a modest grade of singularity, some degree of personality.”8 “It is also a source of human liberties.”9
- The Berne Convention, for example, provides for protection of moral rights in Article 6bis: “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.” [↩]
- The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), codified under 17 USC § 106A, grants some moral rights to visual artists under certain circumstances; see also Gilliam v American Broadcasting Companies, 538 F.2d 14 (2nd Cir. 1976). [↩]
- 17 USC § 106(3). [↩]
- 471 US 539, 553 (1985). [↩]
- 150 F.3d 132, 145-46 (2nd Cir. 1998). [↩]
- 464 US 417, 450 (1984). [↩]
- Worldwide Church of God v Philadelphia Church of God, 227 F.3d 1110, 1119 (9th Cir. 2000). [↩]
- Mark Rose, Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright, pg. 142 (Harvard University Press 1993). [↩]
- Ralph Oman, Going Back to First Principles: the Exclusive Rights of Authors Reborn, 8 J. HIGH TECH. L. 169, 182 (2008). [↩]