The expression “copyright” refers to a set of rights concerning the exploitation of the work of art (so-called “proprietary rights”) and the protection of the personality of its author (so-called “moral rights”).

In Italy, these rights are regulated by Law No 633 of 22 April 1941 (as amended) and the Civil Code (arts. 2575 – 2583). A similar level of moral and proprietary protection is recognised abroad, especially because works of art typically get disseminated around the world, whether immediately or gradually. In these cases, the applicable law is identified on the basis of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

In this regard, at the international level an author is automatically recognised as the owner of moral and proprietary rights to the work, merely because of its creation. Therefore, to have these rights recognised, no administrative formalities are necessary.

Now, let’s examine in detail the rights granted to the artist for his creative work.


  1. Moral Rights

Moral rights, which are intended to protect author’s personality, are inalienable, indefeasible, are not subject to term and can be exercised after the transfer of his property rights (i.e. sale). After the death of the author, those rights can be asserted by the heirs (except, as we shall see, the right to withdraw the work from the market).

Specifically, in the context of moral rights, we can talk about:

  • authorship right: this right allows the artist to claim his/her authorship. This right may be exercised even after the sale of the work and also against the possible purchaser;
  • right to the integrity of the work: copyright laws allow the artist to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his/her honour or reputation;
  • right to publish: the author has the exclusive right to decide whether or not to publish the work. This right may also be exercised by the heirs, unless the artist has expressly excluded this possibility;
  • right to withdraw the work from the market: as we have mentioned above, this particular moral right belongs exclusively to the author and can be exercised only when there are serious moral reasons. In this case the author will have to compensate the holder of the economic rights.


  1. Proprietary Rights

Proprietary rights allow the author to authorise or preclude from the use of his/her work and reap the economic benefits.
The exploitation rights last for the author’s life plus 70 years after the death. After above-mentioned period, the work enters the public domain. When the work was carried out in collaboration with other authors, the term is calculated with reference to the co-author who died last.
The work that enters public domain may be used freely by all, not requiring any permission or compensation.

The main proprietary rights are:

  • right of reproduction: this right allows the artist to authorise (or prohibit) the making and distribution of copies (in any manner or form) of his works. This means, for example, that organisers of an art exhibition can not reproduce the works on display in a catalogue without prior authorisation of the artist;
  • resale rights: author of the work is entitled to compensation (royalty) on subsequent sales following the first one, as long as the transaction involves an art market professional. For more details about applying this proprietary right, please refer to the instructions provided on the website of the SIAE (Italian Society of Authors and Publishers), which manages the application of this right;
  • right to publish: this is the right to put the work on the market for profit. Of course, the author loses this right after the first sale of the work;
  • right of dissemination/communications: this means the right to transmit the work via remote channels such as TV, satellite, computer networks, etc;
  • rental right and lending right: this right means the author has the exclusive authority to cede his works for a limited period of time, in return for an economic benefit.


Luca Poli
Maelström Art Gallery


The information contained in this article are to be considered general and therefore do not replace the specific advice of a professional. The author can not be held responsible for any errors or omissions

Cover Image: Vincenzo Todaro, AnthROPOS 01326039002, fotografie vintage, spilli, cornice a cassetta in legno, 26x39x5,5, 2013

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