Dead, possibly fictitious 'author' asserts his moral right?
September 4, 2014 6:36 PM   Subscribe

According to my copy of The Art of War, "Sun Tzu asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work". Please help me understand what is intended by this statement in this instance.

I have a 2013 Collins Classics publication of Sun Tzu's The Art of War (ISBN 9780007420124) which has, on the verso, the following text: "Sun Tzu asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work".

I understand that this moral rights statement is an element of copyright law.

But even if we assume that Sun Tzu existed and was the sole author of the book, how can anything be asserted (in the present tense) by someone long-dead?

Anyone here familiar with copyright law or publishing conventions? Please help me understand what is intended by this statement in this instance.

The book's introduction states, in the first paragraph:
  • "It was into this Oriental environment that Sun Tzu was allegedly born"
  • "As if often the case with ancient documents, The Art of War is attributed to one author, but may actually be the work of many contributors"
How can someone
  • whose existence is not verified
  • who, even if he lived, died over two thousand years ago
  • who, in any case, may not even be the author of the work in hand
assert a moral right to be identified as the author of the work?
posted by paleyellowwithorange to Law & Government (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As I understand it, the droit moral is a European concept that gives authors some additional control over how their works are used, and allows them to sue to prevent (say) a parody being made.

I'd guess this was just the thing they add to all books as a matter of course; think of 'Sun Tzu' as %AUTHOR% and it makes (a little) more sense.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:43 PM on September 4, 2014

I think you're overthinking this - the boilerplate copyright text at the beginning simply has a section that reads "$authorname asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work."
posted by zamboni at 6:43 PM on September 4, 2014

Best answer: The statement is meaningless, since clearly no one can establish they are an heir to Sun Tzu in order to exercise the moral rights.

I think this is a case where the approval process within Collins to remove the statement is so onerous, the manager responsible just left it in. Tribute to the fun outcomes of poorly designed bureaucracy!
posted by dave99 at 7:00 PM on September 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Article 6bis of the Berne Convention (which governs a lot of international copyright) maintains "moral right" after death. In general European (continental) copyright can't be sold or assigned; just licensed. So the moral rights of the copyright stay with the author even after death.

Moral right is independent from economic right: "Independently of the author's economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation." (Berne Convention)

So moral right isn't about owning or profiting from a work, but having the right to object to changes to it and so forth.

I don't actually have any idea how this functions for someone LONG dead, but I have the vague recollection from copyright class in law school that this idea of artistic moral right comes from French law and is most vigorously litigated in France where artists and authors routinely object to various uses, repurposings, and even sales of their work (like sale of a statue to someone the sculptor hates).

Here, for example, is an NYT article from 2001 about Victor Hugo's heirs (Hugo died in 1885) suing to protect his moral right in Les Miz (preventing a monetized rewriting). The highest French court eventually ruled it an allowable adaptation rather than a moral rights infringement in 2007.

Anyway, I think it's just a Berne-Convention-related statement of fact: As the moral rights of the original author exist in perpetuity, Sun Tzu does have the moral rights of the author in this case, as odd as that statement is when parsed in normal English rather than in legalese.

Hopefully a MeFite with better-than-hazy knowledge of the Berne Convention can come in and clarify.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:14 PM on September 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's Berne Convention boilerplate, and some publishers prefer to phrase it in the passive voice: 'the right of X to be identified as the author of this book has been asserted...' and in the UK, it usually also cites the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988, sometimes specifically Section 77, which was the first encoding of moral rights in English law.

Out of curiosity, I checked the UK edition copyright page of the first Robert Galbraith book (written by JK Rowling) and the relevant boilerplate reads, plainly 'The moral right of the author has been asserted.'

For a translation, you'd be more likely to see an assertion of the translator's moral rights -- that's done on the Penguin translation of Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience, which is an interesting example because it's a pseudonymous author with a non-pseudonymous translator. That makes me suspect that Collins just left in the standard boilerplate because not having it and waiving moral rights would have been more of a pain.
posted by holgate at 10:30 PM on September 4, 2014

Response by poster: 'the right of X to be identified as the author of this book has been asserted...'

'The moral right of the author has been asserted.'

Yeah, if I'd read something along those lines in this particular book, I wouldn't have batted an eyelid.

What I found weird in this instance is the wording in the active voice implying that the author himself had some say in the matter. Knowing that that couldn't possibly be the case, I figured there was probably some legalese reason for this particular wording. I didn't expect the reason to come down to laziness at the publishing house.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 10:41 PM on September 4, 2014

Think of it this way. John Smith wrote a book 150 years ago. It is now in the public domain, and you have every legal right to publish it without any attribution to Smith. The morally proper thing to do, however, is to continue to include his name as the author.
posted by yclipse at 4:19 AM on September 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

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