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What are the Basics of International Copyright Law?

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  • Written By: Terry Masters
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 14 July 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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There is no single international copyright law that will protect the ownership of creative work worldwide with one application. Instead, international copyright law consists of the agreements, known as international treaties, adopted by the nations of the world that extend automatic copyright protection to creative works in all member countries regardless of where the work is created. The basic procedure for obtaining the most protection for creative work under international copyright law is to commit the work to a fixed medium, properly register the work with a national government that is a signatory to the copyright treaties, and register the work individually with any country that provides copyright protection but is not a signatory to an international copyright treaty.

Committing a creative work to a fixed medium is the most basic tenet of copyright law. The law does not protect creative ideas, and it is only upon fixing the creative work in a medium that the originator gains the exclusive rights to copy, distribute and adapt the work. These rights belong to the originator of a creative work automatically and are not dependent on registration.

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Registration, however, protects the originator’s legal interests. If the originator takes the additional step of registering the original work with his country’s national copyright agency, he is granted the added protection of the law, which, in some instances, means presumptive ownership, access to federal courts to adjudicate claims, and the availability of statutory damages in case of infringement. In the U.S., for example, an originator will have an automatic copyright in an original work once it is fixed in a medium, but he can’t pursue a case of infringement in the courts unless the work is officially registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

In this worldwide economic market, where a keystroke can distribute an artistic work over the Internet to every country in a matter of seconds, official registration with the originator’s home country is also a key part of maximizing international copyright protection. There are two main international copyright treaties: the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, commonly known as the Berne Convention, and the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC). The Berne Convention extends to the originator of a work the same copyright protection in a member country that any citizen of that country would receive, regardless of whether the work is registered in the originator’s home country or if notice of copyright was provided.

For many years, countries such as the U.S. and the Soviet Union refused to sign on to the Berne Convention, because of the protection of copyright without registration requirement and, instead, signed on to the UCC as a source of multilateral copyright protection. The U.S. has since changed its copyright laws and joined the Berne Convention, recognizing copyright regardless of registration but still requiring registration for originators to have access to benefits such as statutory damages and attorney’s fees. As of 2010, 164 countries are members of the Berne Convention.

International copyright law is constantly adapting to the globalization of economic markets. There has been significant progress in standardizing international copyright law, even in countries that are not members of the Berne Convention. Previously, an originator would have to apply individually to these non-member countries for copyright protection. In 1994, the World Trade Organization (WTO) adopted the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which sets minimum standards for copyright protection and provides international enforcement mechanisms. Almost all countries are members or aspiring members of the WTO, so the requirement that WTO members sign on to TRIPS has made significant progress in establishing one international copyright law that is applicable worldwide.

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