What Are Moral Rights?

Moral rights are a form of protection given to creators of certain works under the Copyright Act 1968. They were first introduced into Australia in December 2000. In this article we explore what they mean.

In short, they include the following three rights:

  • the right of attribution of authorship;

  • the right against false attribution of authorship; and

  • the right of integrity of authorship (i.e. the right to keep your work free from derogatory treatment).

Why are they called ‘moral’ rights?

The moral rights under the Copyright Act are not concerned with ‘morality’ in the traditional sense of that word.

As explained in another post (What is copyright?), copyright is largely concerned with the economic rights of creators, or the rights that usually have economic consequences: the right to copy, the right to perform in public etc.

In contrast, the moral rights recognise the connection between a creator and his or her work. They are concerned with whether the creator has been properly linked with the work and whether the work has been treated with dignity (or at least not in a derogatory way). These only affect the creator’s ability to make money from the work indirectly.

How do I obtain moral rights, and how long do they last for?

Although moral rights and copyright are different, there are some similarities.

As with copyright, moral rights arise automatically in Australia with the creation of the relevant works. There is no need to apply for, or to do anything to register moral rights. Further, and with one main exception, moral rights last for the same period as copyright lasts for (generally the life of the author plus 70 years). Note: this is different from the position in some other countries, which requires the creator to assert their moral rights in relation to their works.

Do moral rights always arise in relation to works?

Yes and no. Moral rights will always arise in relation to the works which they protect, however, there are often circumstances where the law allows moral rights to be infringed by others. Typically, this will be where it is considered to be ‘reasonable’ to do so. For example, all of the people working in an ad agency would not usually be entitled to obtain a right of attribution for their work on a TV ad or a poster campaign.

If I own the copyright, do I also have the moral rights?

Not necessarily. Moral rights do not protect every work that is subject to copyright, and sometimes the owner of moral rights will be different from the copyright owner.

Moral rights only protect some of the works that are covered by copyright.

Moral rights protect the following types of works:

  • literary works;
  • artistic works;
  • musical works;
  • dramatic works;
  • computer programs; and
  • films.

All of these are protected by copyright, however there are some types of subject matter which are protected by copyright but do not have moral rights. These include sound recordings and published editions of works.

Moral rights are always owned by the creator

There are some cases where the actual creator of a work does not own the copyright. The classic example is of a person (e.g. a graphic designer) who creates some designs as part of his or her employment. Unless the employment contract stipulates otherwise, the copyright will almost certainly be owned by the employer.

In contrast, moral rights can only ever be owned by the creator.

CopyrightDavid Kwei