International copyright law does not exist! Each country has its own copyright laws (I call these domestic copyright laws) which apply to the use of foreign content when used in one’s country. This allows creators and content owners around the world and citizens of many countries to be protected by copyright protection in countries other than their own.
How international copyright works
Each one of the almost 200 countries that belong to the Berne Convention (Berne) automatically provides citizens from other member countries with, at a minimum, the same copyright protections it provides for its own citizens. For example, when you photocopy an article in Canada, then you apply Canadian law — even if that article originates from an American or British author/copyright owner. Similarly, if you show a French film in public in a U.S. theatre, you apply U.S. copyright law with respect to the right to perform a work in public.
Almost 200 Countries are Part of International Copyright Law Treaty
In almost 200 countries around the world, including Canada and the U.S., copyright protection is automatic upon the creation of a work (i.e., once the work is in some sort of tangible form). This means that no registration or deposit with a government copyright office is required in order to have copyright protection. There are, however, voluntary government registration systems where copyright owners can register their works thereby gaining entitlement to certain benefits, especially in cases of copyright infringements of their works.
Similarly, the use of the copyright symbol is not mandatory in many countries and not mandatory in the Berne Convention, yet using the symbol — © — is always a good reminder to the public that copyright exists in a work. Read here why you should always use the copyright symbol on your works.
Duration of copyright around the world
The duration of copyright is determined by the copyright statute in each country. For example, in Canada the general duration of copyright is life-plus-fifty (it lasts for fifty years after the author’s death); in the U.S. and in European Union (EU) countries, it is life-plus-seventy. Specific works and circumstances may result in deviations from these general rules of copyright duration.
Once copyright in a work has expired, that work is said to be in the public domain. Not sure what the public domain means? Read this article that defines the public domain in copyright parlance.
International Copyright Law and the Berne copyright treaty
Copyright literally translates to “right to copy.” But it’s not as simple as that (is copyright ever that simple?) This article sets out international copyright law basics in a very general and broad manner. Refer to the copyright laws in your country to obtain specific information on what rights and privileges exist in your domestic copyright laws. If your country is a member of the Berne Convention, then you’ll likely have at least the minimum protection set out in Berne and any exceptions to copyright law will be subject to the “exceptions test” in Berne. Berne is the leading copyright treaty.
Each country is unique
Even amongst the almost 200 countries that belong to the Berne Treaty, not all of these countries grant creators and copyright owners the same rights. Common rights are the rights of reproduction, adaptation and translation, performance in public, display or communication to the public. Moral rights are very basic in some countries and provide very strong protection in other countries. Droit de suite is a less common right, as discussed in this article.
Read our article about WIPO’s Marrakesh Treaty.
Click here to determine if you have an international copyright issue that you should be addressing.
Learn about our online course Practical International Copyright Law.