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Moral rights: what they are, how they protect artists

Moral rights are personal rights that can protect an artist or creator’s reputation, as well as the integrity of their work. In the UK, moral rights apply if the artist or creator was alive on or after 1 August 1989. It does not matter when the artwork was created, so long as the work is copyright protected. This was made law by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Examples of assertion of the attribution right

When exhibiting an artwork in public, artists and creators can assert their Right of Attribution by including their name on:

  • the original or a copy of the artwork
  • a frame or mount
  • anything (else) to which the artwork is attached

An artist or creator will often include a provision in a written document, like a licensing contract.

For example, inserting the following clause: “{the artist} hereby asserts his/her/their right to be identified as the creator of {name of the artwork}.”

Example of non-visible assertion

The artist or creator may have asserted the right on the back of a painting but it’s been photographed from the front. Anyone dealing with the photograph is still bound by the Right of Attribution to identify the artist or creator of the work.

What moral rights are, and their purpose

Moral rights help protect an artist or creator’s work in a range of situations, from online use to new commissions. They belong to the artist or creator and remain with them even if they no longer own the copyright to an artwork.

Unlike copyright, moral rights cannot be transferred or ‘assigned’ to someone else during the artist or creator’s lifetime. However, they can be exercised after death by beneficiaries and personal representatives.

Moral rights in the UK

There are 4 moral rights under UK law. These give artists and creators legal rights:

  • of attribution
  • to object to derogatory treatment that affects the artist’s reputation
  • to object to false attribution
  • of privacy in certain films and photographs

Moral rights last for the duration of copyright (which in the UK is the artist or creator’s lifetime plus 70 years), with the exception of the Right to Object to False Attribution – which lasts for the artist or creator’s lifetime plus 20 years.

Learn more about visual arts copyright

The right of attribution

This is the right to be identified as the creator of a work when it is published commercially, exhibited publicly or if an image or film of the artwork is communicated to the public.

Asserting the right

Under UK law, the right of attribution must be ‘asserted’. This means the artist or creator must take action to let others know that they wish to exercise this right. It’s advisable to do this as soon as possible. If not, the opportunity to be identified as the creator of a work may be missed. Assertion can take many forms.

Assertion is binding even if not visible

The artist or creator only needs to assert the right once. The assertion is then binding for anyone who handles the original or a copy of the work: importantly, regardless of whether or not the assertion is visible.


In certain circumstances, the right of attribution may not apply. An exception exists in cases where the work is used:

  • for the purposes of reporting current events
  • in a periodical publication, like a newspaper
  • in a publication that is a collective work of reference, like an encyclopaedia, dictionary or Yearbook
  • incidentally, for example if a work appears in an unplanned way in a film or broadcast
  • for computer programmes
  • in computer-generated artwork
  • in examinations

Computer-generated artwork is work generated by computer in circumstances where there is no human author of the work.

The legislation sets out a full list of exceptions to the right of attribution.

Access the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

The right to object to derogatory treatment

Also known as the ‘Integrity Right’, this right aims to protect the reputation of an artist or creator.

The term ‘treatment’ may include:

  • additions
  • deletions
  • adaptations
  • other types of manipulation which interfere with the work’s structure or composition
For the right to be infringed the treatment must also be ‘derogatory’, which means the treatment:
  • amounts to a mutilation or distortion of the work
  • otherwise negatively impacts the artist’s or creator’s reputation

When the derogatory treatment becomes an infringement of the right

An infringement may occur when someone who has treated the work in a derogatory manner then publishes it commercially, or communicates an image of it to the public.

Proving the treatment is derogatory

Whether the treatment of a work is derogatory is subjective, so the artist or creator may need to demonstrate the extent of their reputation. Records like reviews, quotes or expert opinions of their work could be used as evidence.


The same exceptions apply as to the right of attribution.

The right to object to false attribution

This right can be exercised by anyone who finds a work falsely attributed to them. They do not need to have to created anything to benefit from this right. But it’s particularly relevant if they are identified in an express or implied statement as the creator of a work that they did not create – for example, if someone has forged an artist or creator’s work.

When the false attribution is an infringement of the right

The right is only violated or infringed when the falsely attributed artwork is exhibited in public or when copies or materials containing an image of it are issued to the public.

Examples of infringement

A person acting in the course of business, for example an art dealer, will infringe the right if they possess or deal with a work with prior knowledge or reason to believe the work contains a false attribution.

False attribution does not only apply to a forged or mis-attributed work. It can also apply to an alteration to an artist or creator’s work by someone other than the original creator or artist. So if a person acting in the course of business knew or had reason to believe that someone else had made changes to a work after the artist or creator had finished it and passed it on, this would mean the artwork had been falsely attributed.

No exceptions apply

Unlike other moral rights, there are no exceptions to this right. There are no situations in which the right, having been established, does not apply.

The right of privacy in certain photographs or films

This right may be exercised by anyone who has commissioned photographs or films for private and domestic purposes, and the resulting photograph or film is a copyright protected work.

The commissioner has the right to not have:

  • copies issued or communicated to the public, including in a broadcast or cable service
  • copies exhibited publicly

Anyone who does either of those infringes this privacy right.


An exception applies if the photograph or film is used ‘incidentally’ in a broadcast or film. This means if the photography or film is used in an unplanned way.

Contracts and commissions

Moral rights cannot be assigned, but they can be given up or ‘waived’. Before signing a contract, like a commission or licence agreement, artists and creators should look for any clauses mentioning ‘waiving moral rights’. Waiving moral rights means agreeing in advance not to enforce them at any point.

DACS advises against waiving moral rights: the artist or creator loses the advantages of moral rights, including to be identified as the creator of their own work.

Some contracts may grant some form of moral rights back to the artist or creator. For example, by stating they’ll be credited as the author of the artwork – similar to the attribution right. However, it’s a weaker position: if they are then not credited as the author, it would only be a breach of contract, not an infringement of moral rights.

Copyright and commission agreements

Understand different terms, and find out what to particularly look out for in contracts, from our full article on commission agreements.

Read ‘Copyright and commission agreements’

Infringements of moral rights, and remedial actions

If you think that your moral rights have been infringed, it’s worth contacting the alleged infringer and insisting that your rights be respected. Under UK law, remedies for infringement of moral rights could include damages, which is a financial reward, or an injunction preventing further infringing uses depending on the circumstances.

DACS Licensing and DACS Artist’s Resale Right members can use our Copyright Advice Service for further advice on infringement.

What happens to moral rights after the artist or creator dies?

Like copyright, moral rights can be passed down to a beneficiary in a Will, helping to protect an artist or creator’s legacy after they die. If moral rights are not included in the artist or creator’s Will, they pass by default to the person who inherits their copyright.

After the artist or creator’s death, the right of false attribution can be enforced by their personal representatives.

Moral rights outside the UK

Moral rights have a different set of rules in other countries, including those in Europe, even though other parts of copyright law may be similar. In France and Spain for example, some moral rights are perpetual, which means they last much longer than the normal length of copyright.

Outside Europe, the approach to moral rights may be in reference to a particular use of a work. In Australia for example, the law covers works commissioned for public display: giving artists certain rights when the commissioner wants to move the work or take it down.


The content of this article is not intended to be applied to individual circumstances. It is not legal advice, and is not a substitute for independent legal advice.