Sculpture Face-Off Puts Focus on Moral Rights

When is a bull no longer a symbol of prosperity and strength? When a statue of a young girl, standing in a defiant, hands-on-hips pose, is placed a few feet away from it.

That’s the argument being made by Arturo Di Modica, a sculptor whose bronze Charging Bull has stood guard in a small public park in New York’s Financial District since 1989. The bull was an unexpected Christmas gift from Di Modica to Wall Street traders, who were still recovering from the shock of the October 1987 stock market crash.

Then, on the eve of International Women’s Day this year, city officials granted a temporary permit to a financial services firm, State Street Global Advisors, to install Fearless Girl, sculpted by Kristen Visbal. Intended to highlight gender discrimination on Wall Street, Fearless Girl became an overnight sensation, drawing thousands of visitors and eliciting a stream of accolades on social media.

Di Modica, however, is not among Fearless Girl’s admirers. He says the statue violates both the artistic integrity of Charging Bull and his rights as an artist, and he’s threatening to sue the city unless it removes the statue.

The dispute over Fearless Girl has drawn attention to a little-known federal law, the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) of 1990. The VARA was enacted soon after the United States joined the Berne Convention, the world’s leading copyright treaty, and it was the first U.S. copyright law to protect the moral rights of artists. Unlike economic rights, which help creators control their works and profit from them, moral rights protect the personality and reputation of creators.

“[P]ainting a moustache on the Mona Lisa (were the Mona Lisa still protected by copyright) would likely be a violation of da Vinci’s moral rights,” writes Lesley Ellen Harris in her “Info Rights” column in the March-April issue of Information Outlook. “Closer to home, manipulating a scanned photograph may also be a violation of moral rights if it is deemed prejudicial to the honor or reputation of the author of the photograph.”

Learn more about moral rights by reading Lesley’s column in the March-April issue.

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