The term “moral rights” is used in two different ways in law. The older sense is that of rights believed to be inherent to all human beings that do not need to be spelled out in the law. These rights are also sometimes called inalienable or natural rights. In the more modern context, they are rights reserved for the creator of a piece of artwork and they are associated with copyright law.
In the first sense, moral rights are believed by some theorists to be at the underpinnings of all human societies. These rights do not need to be guaranteed by the government to exist, although there may also be laws pertaining to these rights. An example of a moral right might be the right to not be enslaved, although as historical evidence shows, not all societies applied this supposedly universal right to all people.
Rights viewed as universal may also be subject to differing cultural beliefs and values. Basic human rights as described in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are sometimes described as moral rights that all humans are entitled to. However, enforcement of these rights is not universal and some nations have laws that actively contravene these rights. Philosophers and legal scholars have had numerous brisk debates about these rights and where lines should be drawn.
In the area of copyright law, moral rights allow creators control over their work even if they assign the copyright to another person or entity. Internationally, the status of these rights in copyright law varies. Some nations outline and respect these rights, while others do not. Two issues are covered by moral rights. The first is the right to attribution. Artists have the right to correct misattribution or to remain anonymous, no matter who controls the copyright to the work.
The second is the right to protect the integrity of the work. If an artist believes that a use of a work compromises the integrity of the work or the reputation of the artist, permission to use the work can be withdrawn. Once an artist dies, integrity is no longer protected because the opinion of the artist on the matter is no longer available. Whether or not monetary issues are involved, the artist has an opportunity to protest a particular use of a work. Moral rights allow artists to decline uses or adaptations of their work if they do not approve or feel that the use could result in damage to reputation.