Does copyright law, in any jurisdiction, prevent the owner of a physical instance of a copyrighted work from destroying it?

Are there other laws that allow the creator to prevent destruction of artworks by their owners?


4 Answers 4


Not copyright law but the jurisdiction might provide for moral rights of artists and authors and such, which among other things might protect the integrity of the work or prevent its destruction.

One example is the Visual Artists Rights Act, 17 U.S.C. § 106A (VARA), which provides for the author's right in some circumstances "to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right."

The Wikipedia article about VARA includes three examples of when artists have benefited from that right, to varying extents.


You own it

In general, if you own an object, you can do what you like with it if you otherwise comply with the law.

It is possible that a particular object may be protected under heritage or similar law, but if it isn’t, and you comply with environmental and safety law, you grind that thing into dust if you want to.

Of course, if it did, you would never be able to delete a voicemail, email, or throw out used notepaper - they’re all copyright.


Under the UCC, uniform commercial code, you can find the "first sale doctrine". It is an exception to the copyright law, granting the buyer of a work the right to sell, display, or dispose of the copy. It also grants the right to use parts of the copy (e.g. I can shred a painting and weave a basket with the canvas strips) to create other works.

Though it says "first buyer" the right attaches on a transfer of the copyright (i.e. a second sale). This is implied in the "dispose" section. ref

This does not allow the buyer to create derivative works from the copyrighted material. One still cannot take photographs of a work and publish them as the original copyright sticks. The first sale doctrine attaches only to the material copy bought.

The first sale doctrine, codified at 17 U.S.C. § 109, provides that an individual who knowingly purchases a copy of a copyrighted work from the copyright holder receives the right to sell, display or otherwise dispose of that particular copy, notwithstanding the interests of the copyright owner. ref

Note that the original IS a "copy" for the purposes of this statute, even if no other copies, as commonly understood in language, were made.

The waters are muddy on digital copies or artwork that only exists in digital medium. EULAs and works sold under a license might change these rights. Such interactions are beyond the scope of this answer.

Specific statutes might protect some historical or heritage artwork from destruction or further modification, though.


Under Brazilian law, there are two distinct copyright laws. The material rights, that can be transferred, and the moral rights, that are inalienable. An artist can sell the artwork and transfer the former, but the latter remains with the artist for as long as the copyright remains (death of author +70 years).

The patrimonial rights are the same as in other parts of the world. But the moral rights give the author the ability to:

  • Claim authorship of the work. This can lead even to defamation or libel lawsuits if claims to the contrary arise.

  • Be mentioned or to sign the artwork The author may demand that their name is displayed next to the artwork, or to actually sign or place a watermark on the work.

  • Artwork integrity - The author may deny modifications or changes to the artwork that may be considered harmful to the image or honor of the author.

  • Keep works unpublished and private - artworks cannot be published without the author permission. This permission is implicit with the sale or licensing but an author cannot be forced to publish a new work.

  • right to withdrawal the author may request works to be removed from public view, unpublished or deleted if they harm their image or honor. Exercising this right may incur a penalty or other monetary sanctions to the author, however (i.e. to repay the losses incurred to a third party).

Some of these rights might exist or be implied in other jurisdictions but they are explicitly stated in the Brazilian copyright law.



  • 1
    What does “claim ownership” mean? If I paid an artist £2000 to create a picture of my dog and hand it to me, surely they can’t then claim ownership and take it away?
    – gnasher729
    Aug 6, 2023 at 17:38
  • Ownership, in this context, does not equate to possession. I might have used the wrong term in the translation. I'll change it to authorship Aug 7, 2023 at 15:45

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .