Moral Rights In The Context Of Copyright Law In South Africa

INTRODUCTION

In simple terms, a “copyright” is a form of intellectual property right that grants the creator of an original work (“the author“), the legal and exclusive right to the use and distribution of the work (in return for compensation for the author’s intellectual efforts). In this sense, a copyright can be said to be an economic right.

A “moral right” in the context of copyright law, on the other hand, is rather a personal right which attaches to the author, allowing the author to receive the appropriate credit when his/her work is used and it also dictates, to an extent, the way in which an author’s work is treated by others.

In South Africa, copyright law is regulated in terms of the Copyright Act, No. 98 of 1978 (as amended) (“the Act“), and is administered by the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission, as a branch of the Department of Trade and Industry. In terms of the Act, nine classes of works are eligible for copyright protection and they include literary works, musical works, artistic works, cinematograph films, sound recordings, programme-carrying signals, broadcasts, published editions and computer programs.

 

THE CONCEPT OF MORAL RIGHTS

Section 20 of the Act creates a legal obligation to give credit to works of an author and not to treat it in a derogatory way, and further defines a moral right as a protected right that applies to literary, musical and artistic works, cinematograph films and computer programmes (but excludes sound recordings, broadcasts and published editions) (“work/s”). At its heart, a moral right consists of the right to paternity and the right to integrity of the author’s work. The right to paternity allows the author to claim authorship of the work, whereas the right to integrity allows the author to object to any distortion, mutilation or modification of the author’s work to the extent that any such distortion, mutilation or modification would be prejudicial to the author’s honour or reputation. In other words, if the author reasonably feels that making certain changes in or to his/her works would undermine his/her creative intent or “vision” embodied in those works, he/she can prevent that change from being made, regardless of any economic rights that another person may own in that same work by virtue of a license or copyright.

An author’s moral rights to his/her works are, however, qualified by the economic interests which a copyright seeks to protect, and section 20 of the Act further provides that an author may not object to modifications to his/her works which are absolutely necessary for the commercial exploitation of those works.

It is important to bear in mind that a moral right can only subsist in the above works if such works enjoy copyright in South Africa in the first place.

 

WAIVER AND TRANSFERABILITY OF MORAL RIGHTS

Just like many personal rights, moral rights can be waived by the author and the author can choose not to enforce them. No formalities are prescribed in the Act for the waiver of moral rights, although good practice dictates that any waivers of moral rights be reduced to writing.

Whereas copyrights are freely transferrable, a moral right attaches to the author throughout the author’s lifetime and terminates upon his/her death (or in the case of an author which is a corporate entity, the dissolution of that entity) and cannot be transferred. What is interesting in this regard is that an assignment of copyright leaves the author’s moral rights unaffected and in many instances, the holder of the copyright will still be required to obtain the necessary waivers from the author. In other words, no matter who gets to exploit the economic rights being the subject matter of the copyright, the author will still have the right to be named and given recognition for his/her work (unless he/she waives such right).

 

INFRINGEMENT, ENFORCEMENT AND REMEDIES

A moral right could be infringed by, for example, not properly attributing the work of the author, or treating it in such a manner so as to lower the reputation or dignity of the author. Given the closely related nature of copyright and the moral rights that subsist in the copyright, the statutory remedies which apply to an infringement of copyright would also apply to an infringement of an author’s moral rights. The Act provides for a claim for damages or the imposition of an interdict. These statutory remedies are complemented by common law remedies to the extent that any conduct that violates the dignity and reputation of the author can give rise to a similar claim for damages or an interdict to curtail the infringement.

 

CONCLUSION

Authors in South Africa enjoy a reasonable measure of protection regarding the intellectual products of their labours. South Africans have, however, been slow to enforce these rights and to date, there have been very few reported cases dealing with this area of law. Perhaps the reason why moral rights are so rarely asserted are, firstly, it is a fairly unknown concept in South Africa, and secondly, many commercial agreements governing the use of intellectual property will often include a waiver of the moral rights of the author.

Should you have any queries concerning your business and its use of its own intellectual property and that of others, please feel free to contact us – we would be glad to assist you.

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