An obscure amendment to a bill that Congress passed minutes before it adjourned has established, for the first time in federal legislation, the right of artists, photographers, sculptors and printmakers to protect their work from unauthorized mutilation and change.

The legislation, which had been sought by arts groups for six years before it was tacked onto a bill creating 85 new federal judgeships in the waning hours of the 101st Congress, parallels statutes in 11 states.

But the proposed statute supersedes the maze of sometimes contradictory protection for artists even in states that had such protections.

In granting artists the right to control the use of their names as the creators of work and giving them the ability to fight in court anyone who destroys or alters it, the congressional action extends the state protections nationwide. Most European countries have had such national statutes for decades -- part of an international trend toward recognition of "intellectual property rights."

"It's not exactly what we wanted, but it is a major step for visual artists in the United States," said George Koch, vice president of the Artists Equity Association Inc., a 43-year-old Washington-based group that had been working for passage of the legislation since 1984.

The proposed statute, which establishes a legal concept called "artist moral rights," applies to all original artwork -- though there may be some question about the extent of the protection to some craft media, including pottery and furniture. It also applies to prints, multiple-cast sculptures and photographs in numbered editions of 200 or fewer in which each piece is signed by the artist, as well as to murals.

It requires the U.S. copyright office to set up a national directory in which artists can register so that their current addresses are known in the event a building's owner proposes to remove or destroy an artwork -- such as a sculpture or mural -- years after an artist has relocated from where he lived when the work was created.

"I'm absolutely delighted," said Santa Monica, Calif., artist Tom Van Sant, the creator of a mural in a downtown bank building destroyed in 1982 by the new owners of the structure in a case that remains a prominent symbol of the plight of artists.

The new legislation includes no provisions to regulate motion picture colorization, another key artist moral rights issue. But while earlier attempts at passing such legislation had nominally linked colorization and visual artists' rights, the two issues had diverged by the end of the congressional session and the movie issue was not included in the bill pushed through Congress in the early morning hours of Oct. 28.

Although President Bush has not yet signed it, the measure is seen as virtually veto-proof since the artist provisions are an amendment to a criminal justice reform act -- including the new judgeships -- supported by the White House.

There are no criminal penalties in the new legislation, which restores to artists the right to disassociate themselves from work that has been changed in ways of which they disapprove. Artists could also force termination of attribution to them of work they did not create. An artist who believes that his work has been changed or mutilated in violation of the proposed statute could sue the person or organization responsible.

The proposed statute does establish civil fines -- $10,000 for each incident of mutilation or unauthorized association of an artist's name with a work whose authorship may be in dispute, according to the Artists Equity Association.