It’s pretty rare for us to bring up the issue of “moral rights” over creative works in the US, and even rarer to directly reference VARA — the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 — and yet, here we are, twice in one week discussing VARA claims. Even more incredibly, both are about sculptures that were placed for free in parts of lower Manhattan, right off Wall St. The claim that’s received lots of attention was the one over the Wall St. Bull and the fact that another statue was placed near the bull, which the artist claims changes his message, and thereby violates VARA. This other claim is from another sculptor, Steve Tobin, who is suing Trinity Church for moving his 9/11 memorial sculpture to Connecticut.
VARA, if you don’t remember, was a bill passed in 1990, as a half-assed way to try to pretend that the US is in compliance with the Berne Convention — the large (and almost entirely awful) international agreement on copyright and copyright related issues. Part of the Berne Convention requires that countries signing on recognize so-called “moral rights.” For the most part, copyrights are considered economic, rather than moral rights, which is why they can be bought and sold. Moral rights, on the other hand, are a concept more popular in Europe, which argue beyond the economic rights, the creators of works have certain “moral” rights in what is done with those works. In order to pretend that the US fulfilled the Berne Convention requirements without actually introducing a full moral rights regime, Congress passed VARA in 1990, which gave fairly limited moral rights only to “visual” works like paintings and sculptures. The specific moral rights granted include the right to claim authorship in the work you created, and to prevent the destruction or mutilation of your work — which is what we discussed in the case of the Wall St. Bull (even though VARA likely doesn’t apply to the Bull).
So, now for the details of this case. The Art Newspaper (the link above), which first wrote about this story, did not post a link to the filing (side note: I never understand why journalists don’t link to source material if they have access to it). You can read the whole thing here. But the quick summary, as explained in the link above, is this:
The sculpture The Trinity Root recalled a sycamore tree that stood in front of the 320-year-old church and bore the brunt of the debris from the collapse of the Twin Towers on 11 September, preserving the church from more extensive damage. Tobin convinced the rector of the church at the time to allow him to excavate the stump and roots of the tree so that he could create a bronze memorial. The artist was not paid by the church and covered the production costs himself—estimated at more than $1m according to the lawsuit filed in federal district court on Wednesday, 12 April—on the promise that the work would remain in the courtyard permanently.
The sculpture was installed in 2005, but a different rector…