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Why ‘moral rights’ are important - part xiv

FIRST, what are these "moral rights"? The important ones are the right to be identified as the author of your work, and the right to defend the integrity of your work, for example to take action against manipulation or to object to it being used in a harmful context. (For the avoidance of doubt: photographers are, in law, included in "authors".)

One illustration of why they are important comes in a New York Times report that publisher Macmillan is "introducing software called DynamicBooks, which will allow college instructors to edit digital editions of textbooks and customize them for their individual classes."

That may seem all very well and an exciting example of the imaginative application of new technology, and so on and blah. Until, that is, you consider the political context in the US. Schools are governed by elected school boards. Often, those school boards try to impose teaching of what they'd like to be true, instead of education as an inquiry into how the world is. Sometimes, those school boards are captured by people who believe that the world was created in six days, and insist that everyone else believes that too.

How long, then, before one of Macmillan's textbooks is "corrected" to reflect a particular school board's interpretation of Holy Writ?

And what would be the defence against that? In principle, the author's moral right of integrity. For what could be more damaging to the textbook author's "honour and reputation", in the words that international law uses, than having such views appear under their name?

Except that in the US no author has moral rights (only artists do, and only in signed and numbered editions of 250 or fewer).

And in the UK no author has moral rights in any work done for a newspaper or magazine or otherwise for reporting news and current affairs. The NUJ objects vigorously to this - see Small progress on copyright.

And why "moral" rights? These rights are not particularly "moral" in the sense a bishop might recognise. The term is the least-bad translation from the French « droit moral », analogous to a term in that language for a corporation, « personne morale ». They are the rights that are not strictly economic.

  • The European Federation of Journalists has written to all member unions asking them to draw their members' attention to the importance of moral rights - specifically to photographers, as a follow-up to the EFJ's Paris conference. Consider this a contribution to that effort.
Last modified: 2 Mar 2010 - © 2009 contributors
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