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Advice - General / Rights and why they are important / Moral rights

Quite separately from the "economic rights" that give you final say over who can copy your work, you have what are called "moral rights".

The important moral rights are the right to object if your work is distorted - to defend its "integrity" - and the right to an accurate credit - to "identification". These are obviously important to protecting and to spreading your reputation - and without your reputation you have no work.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (see the link below) made moral rights explicit for the first time in UK law. The exact rights are:

  • the right to be identified as the author of the work;
  • the right to object to false attribution of the work - that is, having someone else's work credited to you; and
  • the right to object to "derogatory treatment" of the work - also referred to as the right to protect the integrity of the work.

In plain English, freelances have the rights to a credit; to prevent anyone falsely putting their name to a work; and to protect the authenticity of their work. This last is particularly important now that computer technology makes digital manipulation so easy and so hard to detect.

But there are (of course) exceptions to the above.

In particular the moral rights to a credit and to object to derogatory treatment do not apply to any work made for the purpose of reporting current events; or for newspapers, magazines and similar periodicals; or appearing in encyclopaedias, dictionaries or yearbooks.

The right to a credit is effective only if it is "asserted": the phrase "Moral rights asserted" at the foot of the copy or on invoices seems to be sufficient "assertion".

Employed journalists have no right to a credit on work done in the course of their employment.

Employed journalists have no right to defend the integrity of work done in the course of their employment (except in the case that the work is not reporting news or current affairs, does not appear in a newspaper or magazine, and has appeared with a credit).

UK law makes it possible for these rights to be given up or "waived" anyway.

Clients using laundry-list contracts often demand that freelances "waive" their moral rights, even where the law already rules these out for the uses that the freelance is licensing. Such pressure needs to be resisted. The point of it, in so far as there is one beyond grabbing everything the lawyer can think of and most things they can not, is to create the impression that waiving moral rights is normal business practice.

Clients sometimes argue that they need a waiver of the moral right of integrity so that they can edit freelances' work. This is a false argument, even without considering the gap in the law for newspapers and magazines (unless an editor intends to change the work so that it is "contrary to the honour or reputation" of the journalist).

It is good practice for editors to send the edited version to the journalist to check that the subs have not "clarified" it to say something that's not true. Email makes it possible to do this even on a daily paper. We suggest that the moral right ought to apply to the integrity of the agreed published version, and to allow the journalist to defend that against changes by others.

(Of course in the case of photographs, publishing a picture that has been altered in any way beyond correcting colour balance and so forth is wrong - unless it is clearly labelled as manipulated and therefore an illustration, not reportage. The NUJ Code of Conduct, linked below, implicitly forbids this through its requirement that a journalist "ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair".)

And another thing (mostly for picture editors)

Journalists who work as picture editors or who may be asked to collect "pick-up" photographs - for example family photos of someone in the news - need to know about the little-known fourth moral right. This forbids publishing, broadcasting or exhibiting photos taken for "private domestic" clients, unless the person who "commissioned" them gives permission.

The point was that High Street photo studios - remember them? - should not be able to exploit, for example, wedding pictures that become newsworthy. It appears to mean that it is illegal to publish a "pick-up" photo unless you have explicit permission from the person who "commissioned" it as well as permission from the holder of the copyright, and as well as permission to borrow the physical photo.

But remember, you own copyright

Some freelances are confused by our complaints about the exclusion of moral rights in work done for newspapers and magazines. Remember: you own copyright - the economic rights - in every article you write, every design you produce and every picture you take, as a freelance, until and unless you assign it to someone else. The moral rights are explicitly separate from the economic rights.

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Text © Mike Holderness & previous contributors; Moral rights asserted. The collection (database right) © National Union of Journalists. Comments to please. You may find the glossary helpful.

The National Union of Journalists must not, can not and would not wish to dictate rates or terms of engagement to members or to editors. The information presented here is for guidance and as an aid to equitable negotiation only.

Suggestions apply to contracts governed by UK law only. In any event, nothing here should be construed as legal advice.