Campus Abstract: The Visual Artists’ Rights Act


Image: A Map of a Part of the World © Anne Gilliland, 1979.

Today’s #TarGramChallenge is #CampusAbstract, and so we are considering the many abstract paintings in my office.  I first became interested in copyright when I was an art student in college.  I thought it was very interesting that I could own a copyright just by affixing notice (the copyright symbol, name, and date) to my work.  This was the law at the time, but today the rules have changed yet again, and now no formalities are needed to obtain a copyright.

Did you know that U.S. copyright law gives some special rights to visual artists?  The Visual Artists’ Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) grants some moral rights to creators of some types visual art, primarily fine art prepared for exhibition purposes.  For the purposes of the VARA, these moral rights are

  • the right to be recognized as the author of a work
  • the right to prevent attribution for work s/he did not create
  • the right to prevent attribution if a work has been modified in a way that prejudices the creator’s honor or reputation,
  • the right to prevent the destruction of a work of “recognized stature”

In this country, these rights can be waived but not transferred.  And the rights are distinct from ownership of the copyright and ownership of the physical object.  Moral rights are more common and apply to more types of works of authorship in Europe than they do in the United States.

I created the painting reproduced above prior to 1990.  Do I have moral rights in the painting?  Yes, I would, if I transfer title of the painting to someone else.






The Copyright #Tarpit of Pre-1972 Sound Recordings

When I saw that today’s #TarGramChallenge theme was #tarpit, I knew what I wanted to write about–pre-1972 sound recordings, one of the tar pits par excellence of copyright law.  Copyrights in sound recordings from that time period are not covered by Federal law, and instead they are covered by a patchwork of state laws.  Many of these laws are aimed at preventing bootlegging and misappropriation, and they were never intended to deal with the full range of issues that we find in music copyright today,

What does this mean for us here at the UNC Scholarly Communications Office?  The Libraries deal with a wide range of sound recordings from all periods, not only from the Music Library but also from the Southern Folklife Collection and other special collections.  Recently, we made a study of North Carolina law for sound recordings, so that we can get more clarity on how and when we can digitize these recordings legally.

Since then, UNC received a large grant from the Mellon Foundation to digitize and preserve historic audio and moving image collections.  The work we have done in researching North Carolina copyright law for pre-1972 sound recordings will be invaluable as we plan this proess.





Carolina In My Mind: When Can I (Legally) Use a Popular Song?

Most of the basics of music copyright are the same as for other formats.  The rules about how copyright occurs and for fair use are the same for music as they are for other media.  Nevertheless, the world of music copyright and music licensing is particularly fraught because of the amounts of money involved, the popularity of much of the content, and the ease of reproduction and distribution.

One of the things that is different about music is the variety of licensing schemes and the variety of rights that they can cover.  For example, there may be different copyrights in all of the following:  particular recording of a song, in the music that is used, and in the lyrics.

This is reflected in a number of different licensing schemes.  For example, it is possible to get a compulsory license (a license which the rights holder must grant) to make a cover of a song.  Many venues where musicians perform pay a blanket license to cover the rights holders’ fees for the right of public performance.  Other music licenses include synchronization rights to provide background music for a video.

Although the analysis with respect to market harm can often be restrictive, an assertion of fair use can apply to music, especially in an educational context.  One of the most important recent fair use cases—Campbell v. Acuff Rose, involved a defendant who won a copyright lawsuit with a fair use defense.  As with any content, the user should look at the type of use, the amount and substantiality used, and the effect on the market.

If you are uploading music—either your own or someone else’s– to a social media site, the terms of use for that site are also relevant.  Some sites, like YouTube, have software that detects when other rights holders’ music is uploaded and either remove the music or add advertising around the video.

If you have questions about music as either a consumer or creator, contact us at the Scholarly Communications Office.