To honor the agreements made at Berne, Congress passed the Visual Artists’ Rights Act (VARA) in 1990. VARA expanded copyright protection for the visual arts and recognized three basic moral rights of artists – the right to the integrity of the work, a right of attribution, and the right to prevent misattribution or misuse of one’s name. In addition, artists of “recognized stature” may prevent intentional or neglect destruction of their work.
Digital work may fall under the increased protection of VARA if it meets certain requirements of exclusivity are met. More extensive protections are afforded through VARA, which applies to paintings, drawings, and photographs, but specifically exclude audio-visual works and motion pictures, distinguishing and placing a higher value upon static works of art.
This may discourage serious artists from exploring the digital medium by excluding much of it from the realms of “fine art.” If a digital artist or photographer wants their work to qualify for VARA protection, they must find a way to limit the copies produced to fewer than 200, sign them, and designate them as for “exhibition purposes only.” While digital signatures are in common use and can take the place of an ink signature, the signature requirement presupposes the copy be fixed in a static form. Online transactions of digital work can be adjusted to meet exclusivity requirements specified by VARA, such as by mimicking a real-world transaction by deleting the master copy simultaneous with sale and download.
The rights which automatically vest in creators are a poor fit for web-based collaborative projects and works in digital media. Requirements of exclusivity may force an artist to choose between legitimacy in the art world with a corresponding increase in copyright protection, or practical methods for distributing and profiting from their work.