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Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation v. Büchel: First Circuit Holds That Artists Have Moral Rights In Unfinished Works

Copyright Patent

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation v. Büchel, No. 08-2199 (1st Cir. Jan. 27, 2010)

Slip Opinion

On January 27, the First Circuit affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded for further proceedings the district court's grant of summary judgment for the Museum of Contemporary Art, holding that artists have moral rights in unfinished artworks.

The First Circuit decided a number of complex issues related to the Visual Artists Rights Act ("VARA"), holding that VARA's protection of an artist's moral rights extends to unfinished creations that are "works of art" within the meaning of the Copyright Act.  In so holding, the court reasoned that “moral rights protect the personality and creative energy that an artist contributes to his or her work,” and “[t]hat convergence between artist and artwork does not await the final brushstroke or the placement of the last element in a complex installation.”

The court also ruled that the district judge in the lower court improperly granted the Museum of Contemporary Art summary judgment for one of Büchel’s integrity claims under VARA and his Copyright Act claim finding that there were “material disputes of fact” that should be decided by a jury about whether the museum distorted Mr. Büchel’s installation by showing it to several people after making changes in it without his approval.  However, the First Circuit ruled that Büchel's right-of-attribution claim was moot because VARA provides only injunctive relief to protect the right of attribution and his installation no longer exists.

The New York Times and the Copyright Litigation Blog both provide an overview of the case.  The Boston Globe provides a good news story that includes the facts going back to the initial dispute.

After a dispute between the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) and artist Christoph Büchel surrounding a giant installation called "Training Ground for Democracy," the project was never completed.  The Museum sought relief in federal court to obtain a declaration stating that it was entitled to present to the public the materials and partial constructions of the project. Büchel responded with several counterclaims, seeking an injunction preventing MASS MoCA from displaying the unfinished installation and damages for the Museum's alleged violations of his rights under both VARA and the Copyright Act.

Although Judge Michael Ponsor of the district court ruled that MASS MoCA could open the unfinished installation to the public, the First Circuit held that in addition to a valid VARA claim, MASS MoCA violated Büchel’s exclusive right to display his work publicly. In spite of the district court’s ruling, however, museum director Joseph C. Thompson decided to dismantle the installation before making it available to the public.  By dismantling "Training Ground," the Museum prevented the further use of Büchel's name in connection with the work, eliminating any basis for injunctive relief.

The First Circuit reasoned that because VARA applies with equal force to incomplete artistic endeavors, it could not accept the district court's reliance on the unfinished state of "Training Ground" to minimize the rights of its creator.  Instead, the court ruled that summary judgment was improperly granted to MASS MoCA because material disputes of fact existed concerning one of Büchel's integrity claims.  The court said that the evidence it reviewed “would permit a jury to find that the museum forged ahead with the installation in the first half of 2007 knowing that the continuing construction in Büchel’s absence would frustrate — and likely contradict — Büchel’s artistic vision.”  The court further concluded that there was sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find that MASS MoCA's actions caused prejudice to Büchel's “honor or reputation.”  The court, however, rejected Büchel’s argument that merely exhibiting the work of art in its unfinished state without the artist’s consent was sufficient to constitute a distortion.

The case is particularly important in defining the scope of VARA and has been hailed as a victory for artist's rights.  However, as Ray Dowd points out, the case also demonstrates some of VARA's weaknesses, which may create situations in which museums will force artists to contract away rights as a condition of display.