In Law, what are Moral Rights?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “moral rights” is used in two different ways in law. The older sense is that of rights believed to be inherent to all human beings that do not need to be spelled out in the law. These rights are also sometimes called inalienable or natural rights. In the more modern context, they are rights reserved for the creator of a piece of artwork and they are associated with copyright law.

Moral rights are believed to be basic rights for all human societies.
Moral rights are believed to be basic rights for all human societies.

In the first sense, moral rights are believed by some theorists to be at the underpinnings of all human societies. These rights do not need to be guaranteed by the government to exist, although there may also be laws pertaining to these rights. An example of a moral right might be the right to not be enslaved, although as historical evidence shows, not all societies applied this supposedly universal right to all people.

Rights viewed as universal may also be subject to differing cultural beliefs and values. Basic human rights as described in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are sometimes described as moral rights that all humans are entitled to. However, enforcement of these rights is not universal and some nations have laws that actively contravene these rights. Philosophers and legal scholars have had numerous brisk debates about these rights and where lines should be drawn.

In the area of copyright law, moral rights allow creators control over their work even if they assign the copyright to another person or entity. Internationally, the status of these rights in copyright law varies. Some nations outline and respect these rights, while others do not. Two issues are covered by moral rights. The first is the right to attribution. Artists have the right to correct misattribution or to remain anonymous, no matter who controls the copyright to the work.

The second is the right to protect the integrity of the work. If an artist believes that a use of a work compromises the integrity of the work or the reputation of the artist, permission to use the work can be withdrawn. Once an artist dies, integrity is no longer protected because the opinion of the artist on the matter is no longer available. Whether or not monetary issues are involved, the artist has an opportunity to protest a particular use of a work. Moral rights allow artists to decline uses or adaptations of their work if they do not approve or feel that the use could result in damage to reputation.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Latte31: In my opinion, there should have never been a universal right to vote. Doesn't matter if it's for women or blacks. I think that people should actually "earn" this right. They have to prove that they are capable of thinking rationally and demonstrate that they are capable of logic and reason before they are given the monumentally important task of electing politicians who will run our nations and shape our laws. It's kind of like how people have to prove themselves capable of operating a car before they can "earn" the right to drive, so to speak. Hope it makes sense.


@Moldova - I get upset just thinking about it because our constitution was created to in order to avoid the formation of a tyrannical government.

Speaking of a tyrannical government, I often wonder though why we choose to protect certain countries from human rights violations and not others.

I mean there are human rights violations every day in Cuba but nobody seems to care. You really never hear about that. In that country there is no moral code of rights because the people are not even given the most universal right of all which involves free speech. The people are starving with their meager rationings while the government officials dine on lobster.

Many people have been jailed and others have been executed because of their disagreements with the government. I don’t know how much longer we will continue to ignore these human rights violations.


@Latte31 - I agree and I have to say that constitutional rights also matter and are not always respected. For example, in the recent ruling, a federal court judge ruled that the current health care law was unconstitutional should be respected.


I think what is amazing is that we had to define civil rights and that the rights of all people were not automatically considered equal legal rights.

The right to vote for example was not extended to women until the early part of the 20th century which was over 150 years after the United States became a nation. It is also hard to believe that blacks and whites were not considered equals.

The fact that many blacks had to attend different schools and dine at different restaurants and sit at the back of the bus is a sad part of our history. Also, blacks were not afforded the right to vote and were often disqualified by needless tests or fines in order to vote.

I am glad that things have changed for the better and we are now a more progressive country.

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