My discussion of intellectual property inevitably raised questions about my argument that property rights are not natural rights, but are socially constructed and, in the modern world, exist only as part of the legal structures created and enforced by states. The “moral rights” of artists over their creative works has been raised as a suggested counterexample. In fact, this example reinforces my original argument. Two cases arise, both of interest:
In the United States, the moral rights of artists were effectively unrecognised by law until accession to the Berne Convention 1989, and remain extremely limited. The result is that, once an artist has sold the rights to her work, she has no control over its subsequent use, unless she can make a case separate from moral rights, for example that use in an advertisement misrepresents the artist as endorsing the product. So, for example, it’s perfectly legal to use London Calling to advertise Jaguars, or to clip Fortunate Son to fit a jingoistic ad for jeans. Moral rights are widely recognised, and may generate social opprobrium for those who violate them (as with other misuses of property rights) but they have no legal standing.
In France and other European countries, artists have inalienable moral rights over their work, to prevent misuse of the work by the initial or later purchasers. This is not a property right, but a constraint on property rights. To the extent that moral rights are recognised after the fact, they constitute a taking from the purchaser of the property right. To the extent that they are recognised when artists sell rights to their work, they (like any restriction on alienation of property) represent a constraint on the property rights of the artist. Melanie Safka recognised this, in an ironic fashion, in her classic Look what they’ve done to my song, Mawhen she wrote
It’ll be all right ma, maybe it’ll be okay
Well, if the people are buying tears
I’ll be rich someday, ma
Coming back to the general issue, property rights and (perceived/socially accepted) natural rights have features that mean they tend to coincide in some ways and conflict in others. Most obviously, they are both associated with the general feeling of rightful possession, so that a system of property rights is more stable when it coincides with natural rights. On the other hand, natural rights are mostly perceived as inalienable and indivisible, while property in its ideal form is infinitely transferable and divisible. Moral rights for artists are a classical example of the clash between inalienability and unfettered property rights but the same clash arises at every point in the production process.