Moral Rights for Musicians

The recent Republican convention saw many artists protesting the use of their songs. The songs, however, were played legally, with proper licenses purchased and in place. What the artists complained about is something less concrete and more along the lines of moral rights. 

What are moral rights?

The concept of moral rights began in France and Germany, built upon the work of German philosophers such as Kant and Hegel as well as French theorists—the French term for moral rights is “droit moral.” Moral rights are not about financial compensation, but rather about the reputation of the artist. Moral rights started to spread to other nations after being included in the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works in 1928.

Definition of moral rights

There are several types of moral rights, including the right of the creator to be credited for a work. There’s also the right that prevents the use of a work that might be offensive to the creator—such as at a political convention where the artist doesn’t agree with the politics.

Moral rights in the U.S.

Although the United States signed onto the Berne Convention in 1988, it never made moral rights part of U.S. law, except for a narrow scope that was passed in 1990—the Visual Rights Artists Act (VARA). As the name implies, these moral rights are for visual arts only and do not apply to music. That means that for a U.S. political convention, musicians are unlikely to have any legal recourse if their music is used. There are groups, including the Future of Music Coalition, working to expand moral rights in the U.S. to musicians. For more information, read Moral Rights for Musicians: A Primer on the Future of Music Coalition website.