The First Circuit took on a fairly specialized issue of copyright law in a lengthy opinion involving, among other claims, allegations that the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art violated the rights of Swiss visual artist Christoph Büchel under the Visual Artists Rights Act ("VARA"), which protects certain so-called "moral rights" of some visual artists.
The 60-page opinion gives a long and detailed explanation of the history of the installation as well as the deterioration of the relationship between the Museum and Büchel. In brief, the Museum and Büchel agreed to an installation art project entitled "Training Ground for Democracy" that Büchel described as "essentially a village, . . . contain[ing] several major architectural and structural elements integrated into a whole, through which a visitor could walk (and climb)." Although the parties did not formalize their relationship with regard to the installation by executing a written instrument, they apparently did agree that Büchel would have sole title to any copyright in the completed work.
Unfortunately, as a result of numerous conflicts and a breakdown in the relationship between the Museum and Büchel, the project was never completed. Thus, the Museum sought a declaration in federal court that it was entitled to present the materials and "partial constructions" of the installation to the public. Büchel in turn counterclaimed under VARA and the Copyright Act seeking an injunction preventing the Museum from displaying the unfinished installation as well as damages for alleged violations of his rights.
On cross-motions for summary judgment, the District Court found for the Museum because, although it assumed that VARA applies to unfinished works of art, it concluded that there were no genuine issues of material fact. The First Circuit agreed with the District Court in some respects but ultimately concluded that there were genuine issues of fact as to some of Büchel's claims under VARA and Section 106 of the Copyright Act.
The lengthy opinion is worth the read for those interested but here's a quick summary of some of the First Circuit's conclusions on the legal issues:
- VARA applies to unfinished but "fixed" works of art that, if completed, would qualify for protection under the statute
- VARA does not provide a damages remedy for violation of the right of attribution, one of the "moral rights" protected under the statute
- VARA does not cover the separate moral right of disclosure (also known as the right of divulgation), which protects the artist's authority to prevent third party disclosure of the work to the public without the artist's consent
- The failure of claims under VARA does not, necessarily, signify the inadequacy of "more traditional copyright claims"
The cite is Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation, Inc. v. Büchel, No. 08-2199 (1st Cir. Jan. 27, 2010).