One of the first things to learn in an introduction to international copyright law is that it doesn’t exist! Each country has its own domestic copyright laws that apply to the use of foreign content when used in one’s country. These individual laws, and international copyright treaties, are what we refer to as international copyright law. It allows creators and content owners around the world and citizens of many countries to enjoy copyright protection in countries other than their own. Understanding this will help you address an international copyright issue that arises.
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 Copyright 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.
The Berne Convention is the leading international copyright treaty. It currently has 176 member countries. You can see the list of Berne members here.
Each Berne member country automatically provides citizens from other member countries with, at a minimum, the same copyright protections it provides for its own citizens. This is the notion of national treatment.
For example, when you photocopy an article in Canada, 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.
Automatic Copyright Protection
In Berne member 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 infringement of their works.
Similarly, the use of the copyright symbol isn’t mandatory under the Berne Convention and by extension in its member countries. However, 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.
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 50 years after the author’s death). In the U.S. and in European Union (EU) countries, it’s 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.
Each Country Is Unique
Not all countries that are members of the Berne Treaty grant creators and copyright owners the same rights. Common rights are the rights of:
- 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 others. Droit de suite is a less common right, as discussed in this article.
Do You Have an International Copyright Issue?
You may have an international copyright issue without realizing it. Many copyright issues that appear to be national copyright issues are in fact international copyright issues. Understanding your own country’s copyright laws is most important, but understanding how copyright treaties and international copyright law works is also essential when publishing content or using content online.
When Does an International Copyright Issue Arise?
With the internet and the way we use, share and publish content in our digital environment, many issues that were once domestic copyright issues have become international copyright issues. A global copyright issue arises in a variety of situations. You have to think globally if any of the following examples apply to you:
- An employee accesses your licensed databases while traveling out of the country
- You’re negotiating a digital license with a vendor/publisher/content owner who’s based outside your own country
- Librarians from more than one country (e.g., South Africa, Australia, Canada and the U.S.) join a journal club and share articles through the club (a journal club involves posting articles to a private online space)
- Two colleagues share research papers from authors from several countries via Sharepoint
- You post a photograph on your Facebook page and someone accesses that photograph from another country
- Your organization has locations or employees in more than one country
- You’re teaching an online course with students located in more than one country
- You’re posting content on a website or intranet that will be accessed outside your own country
- You’re using content from outside your own country
- You’re determining whether fair use or fair dealing may be a defense to the use of online content
Handling an International Copyright Issue
Q&A: International Copyright Law
If you deal with global copyright issues (for example, by using online content), this Q&A provides clear answers to some commonly asked international copyright questions.
Please do not rely on our short practical answers as legal advice or opinions. Contact an attorney should you require legal advice or opinion on international copyright issues.
I live in Canada, where the duration of copyright is life-plus-fifty rather than life-plus-seventy (as in the U.S. and EU countries). For what duration do I need to obtain permission for works being posted on my website?
Since works on a website are accessible from around the world, it’s best to clear permission for life-plus-seventy years for all works. If your readers are accessing any of the works only in Canada, permission is only necessary for life-plus-50 (even for U.S. or EU works). However, if those same works are accessed from the U.S., EU or other countries with a life-plus-70 duration, then permission for life-plus-seventy is necessary.
What’s the leading international copyright treaty?
It’s the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (Berne Convention or Berne), as discussed above.
What’s the role of the WIPO treaties on copyright law and how do they govern copyright in each country?
WIPO administers a number of copyright treaties; however, these treaties don’t govern the copyright law in any country. Rather, the countries that adhere to the treaties must include the WIPO minimum standard of copyright protection in their own copyright legislation.
For instance, the Berne Convention specifies 50 years after an author’s death as the minimum duration of copyright protection. Each Berne member country must protect copyright works for at least life-plus-fifty years, but may do so for longer, as does the U.S., which has a copyright duration of life-plus-seventy years.
Do I need to register copyright in each country where I want to claim copyright protection?
No. If a work is protected by copyright in your own country (assuming your country is a signatory to the Berne Convention), then the work is protected in all Berne Convention countries. No additional steps, including registration, or using the international copyright symbol, are necessary to obtain protection. Note that the Berne Convention prohibits mandatory copyright registration with a national copyright office in member countries.
You may be interested in WIPO’s Marrakesh Treaty.
For an in-depth understanding of U.S. and global copyright principles, plus
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