Intellectual Property | Copyright Infringement | Technology | Software

Destruction of historical civil war statutes may raise monetary claims under VARA

Aug 20th, 2017 | By | Category: Copyright Litigation

Copyright Law in the midst of a Culture War – Potential Legal Implications of Tearing Down Civil War and other Statutes

visual rights of artist under Copyright law


As the “new” society (i.e. Millennials, BLM, Antifa and others) seek to destroy vestiges of the “old” society (i.e. to tear down statutes that offend their sense of history and upset their sensibilities) it should be kept in mind that the creators of certain statutes may have “moral rights” under Copyright protection laws, that can be infringed by destruction or alteration of the work.  In other words, in some cases, tearing down a historical statute (for example a confederate statute of General Lee or other Civil War history figure) or defacing it with tar and feathers may raise compensation issues against cities, towns counties, and even Schools and Universities who agree to remove or topple over historical statutes without consent of the artist or sculptor..

Case Facts – Carter v. Helmsley-Spear, 861 F.Supp. 303 (S.D.N.Y. 1994),

Plaintiff John Meade Swing is a sculptor and an artist who has held public exhibitions of his original works of art since 1984.  Mr. Swing is also licensed by the City of New York as a structural steel welder.  Plaintiff John James Veronis, Jr. is an artist and a sculptor who supports himself through his artistic endeavors. Plaintiff John Francis Carter also is a professional artist and sculptor. Plaintiffs work as partners to create sculptures and other works of art. Collectively, plaintiffs are known as the “Three–Js,” or “Jx3.”

Plaintiffs bring this action to prevent the alteration or destruction of certain art work installed by them in the lobby of a commercial building located in Queens, New York, and to recover money damages, costs, and attorney’s fees. Plaintiffs’ first claim seeks relief pursuant to the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. This claim raises a number of issues of first impression. Plaintiffs’ complaint, as amended by the Joint Pretrial Order (“JPTO”) also alleges willful infringement of copyright, and raises two supplemental state law claims, tortious interference with contract and unlawful ejection. Defendants raise a single counterclaim alleging waste.
On or around April 21, 1994, plaintiffs brought an order to show cause seeking a temporary restraining order to, among other things, prevent defendants from taking any action to alter, deface, modify, or mutilate plaintiffs’ sculptures and installations located at 47–44 31st Street, Queens, New York. On April 25, 1994, this Court heard argument from both plaintiffs and defendants regarding plaintiffs’ application for a temporary restraining order. On April 26, 1994, this Court issued a temporary restraining order enjoining defendants from (a) taking any action to alter, deface, modify, or mutilate plaintiffs’ sculptures and installations located at 47–44 31st Street, Queens, New York; and (b) denying plaintiffs access to 47–44 31st Street, Queens, New York, Monday through Friday, between the hours of 12:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.

The Visual Rights Act of 1990 (“VARA”)

Plaintiffs’ first claim for relief is based upon the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (“VARA”), 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq.. VARA amends the Copyright Act. In passing VARA, Congress for the first time provided for protection of artists’ “moral rights” under the Copyright Act. See Jane C. Ginsburg, Copyright in the 101st Congress: Commentary on the Visual Artists Rights Act and the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act of 1990, 14 Colum.–VLA J.L. & Arts 477, 478 (1990) [hereinafter “Ginsburg”]. “[M]oral rights afford protection for the author’s personal, non-economic interests in receiving attribution for her work, and in preserving the work in the form in which it was created, even after its sale or licensing.”

Rights of Attribution and Integrity:

17 U.S.C. § 106A(a)(3) provides that the author of a work of visual art,
subject to the limitations set forth in section 113(d), shall have the right—

(A) to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right, and

(B) to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right.

A “work of visual art” is defined to include paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures, existing in a single copy or in limited edition. 17 U.S.C. § 101. Works made for hire, works of applied art, and works not otherwise subject to copyright protection such as strictly utilitarian objects, are excluded from this definition. Id. The rights delineated in 17 U.S.C. § 106A(a)(3) subsist for the life of the last surviving author of a work created by more than one artist. 17 U.S.C. § 106A(d)(3).

The limitations set forth in 17 U.S.C. § 113(d), which are referenced in 17 U.S.C. § 106A(a)(3), are as follows:
(d)(1) In a case in which—
(A) a work of visual art has been incorporated in or made part of a building in such a way that removing the work from the building will cause the destruction, distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work as described in section 106A(a)(3), and
(B) the author consented to the installation of the work in the building either before the effective date … of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, or in a written instrument executed on or after such effective date that is signed by the owner of the building and the author and that specifies that installation of the work may subject the work to destruction, distortion, mutilation, or other modification, by reason of its removal,
then the rights conferred by paragraphs (2) and (3) of section 106A(a) shall not apply.
(2) If the owner of a building wishes to remove a work of visual art which is a part of such building and which can be removed from the building without the destruction, distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work as described in section 106A(a)(3), the author’s rights under paragraphs (2) and (3) of section 106A(a) shall apply unless—

(A) the owner has made a diligent, good faith attempt without success to notify the author of the owner’s intended action affecting the work of visual art, or

(B) the owner did provide such notice in writing and the person so notified failed, within 90 days after receiving such notice, either to remove the work or to pay for its removal.

Damages for a Violation of VARA

17 U.S.C. § 501(a) provides that any person or entity that violates 17 U.S.C. § 106A(a) is an “infringer” of the “right of the author.” In order to bring an action to recover damages for a violation of the rights conferred by 17 U.S.C. § 106A(a), the author of the relevant work of visual art need not have registered that work with the Register of Copyrights. 17 U.S.C. §§ 411 & 412. When an infringement of the author’s moral rights has been shown, the author may recover, inter alia, either actual damages, 17 U.S.C. § 504(a) & (b), or at his or her election, statutory damages, 17 U.S.C. § 504(a) & (c).  Plaintiffs have demonstrated that defendants intend to violate their VARA rights. Accordingly, as already discussed, plaintiffs are entitled to prospective injunctive relief. Plaintiffs have not shown, however, that defendants have violated their VARA rights to date.

Courts Holding

 IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that defendants, their agents, their employees, and their representatives are enjoined from (1) distorting, mutilating, or modifying plaintiffs’ art work (defined herein as “the Work”) installed or located in the Lobby of the Property located at 47–44 31st Street, Queens, New York; (2) destroying this art work; and/or (3) removing this art work, or any portion thereof.

Campusano v. Cort, No. 98-3001 [N.D. Cal. Filed July 13, 1998]

Here is a link to this case in San Francisco

Filed in the Northern District Federal Court.




 Under the federal Visual Arts Rights Act, the owner of a building with artwork must contact the artist before changing or destroying the work.”No notice was given to anyone,” Oliver said.

The building is owned by the Robert J. Cort Trust. Cort did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

Oliver said the mural was whitewashed so a new tenant could advertise its business. The firm, University Games, which has leased two floors of the building and plans to move in by the end of the year, was unaware of the dispute until last week, said Naresh Kapahi, the company’s senior financial officer.

“We’re not even there yet,” he said. “We don’t want to be the bad guys moving into the neighborhood.”

Oliver said she hopes the mural can be restored.

Contact us to discuss you claim against a entity that seeks to destroy your artwork.  You may be entitled to compensation.

Contact us if you believe you have legal rights under VARA.  

Call us at (877) 276-5084.


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