Only some crafts works receive protection under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). These include paintings, drawings, prints, photographs or sculptures in a single copy or limited edition of 200 copies or fewer (that are signed and consecutively numbered). In other words, VARA protects crafts works that are often characterized as “fine arts.”
When Crafts Become Fine Art: Preservation
The VARA statute protects you, as the creator of a work of visual art, from “intentional distortion, mutilation or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to your honor or reputation.” This is the most powerful right granted under the VARA provisions. For example, if a collector buys a limited edition silkscreen from you (fewer than 200 prints were made), the collector cannot destroy it without your permission. If the work is destroyed, you can sue under VARA and recover damages, provided you can prove that your reputation was damaged.
The rule regarding destruction does not apply if:
- the work was created prior to enactment of the VARA provisions on December 1, 1990
- you specifically waive the rights in a written statement, or
- the destruction or modification results from the passage of time or because of the materials used to construct the work. For example, certain works such as ice sculptures and sand sculptures by their nature self-destruct, and the owner would have no obligation to affirmatively prevent such destruction.
Length and Transferability of VARA Protection
Although copyright protection normally lasts for the life of the artist plus 70 years, the rights granted under VARA last only for the life of the artist. Once the artist dies, VARA protection no longer exists, and the work can be destroyed without seeking consent.
No VARA Rights If Work Is Made for Hire
Under certain circumstances, the person who employs an artist or commissions an artwork acquires copyright ownership. (This is known as the “work-made-for-hire” principle.) If artwork is created as work made for hire, there are no VARA rights. That is, although normal copyright law applies to the work, neither the artist nor the person commissioning the work can claim rights under VARA.