Berne[d] by Copyright Treaties

Cosette – Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

In 1886 a bunch of countries got together in one of the most important international treaties in history. Called the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, it was intended to address the evil of cross-border infringement of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. These books were so popular in France that the English (and Germans and Italians) got busy copying them in their countries; without copyright rights in those countries, Hugo had little recourse. So, he did what all good highly influential people do – he called his local President and Ambassador, who called up their ruling-class buddies. The French together with the Belgians, Germans, British, Swiss, and Italians (and a few of their protectorates like Tunisia, Liberia, and Haiti) opened a convention to address intellectual property rights that weren’t addressed 3 years earlier in the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property [ed note: the author assumes you know that the Paris Convention dealt only with patents, trademarks, and industrial rights].

As a pirate nation [ed note: in the 1880s the US, fresh off the Civil War, was still playing economic catch-up to the rest of the world], the United States was not a signatory to the Berne Convention until 1988. One of the reasons for the US holding off revolves around a fundamental disagreement in the treatment of copyrights between the US and Europe. Europe believes that an author owns rights in their works merely as a fact of creation; like giving birth, the mind-baby belongs to the author. The US, on the other hand, grants monopoly rights to authors as an incentive for creation and in exchange for disclosing to the public [ed note: normal people call this “publishing”]. Thus, the US had a requirement that authors register their copyrights before they could prevent others from taking their works. Berne Convention, written by Europeans, prohibited imposing registration requirements in order for authors to acquire a copyright. As a result, the US was not in compliance with Berne until the Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect. [ed note: The Copyright Act of 1976, of course, removed registration as a requirement for claiming copyright in a work; however, registration remains a requirement if the author wishes to enforce the copyright in court; leave it to the US to the absolute minimum to comply with a European treaty].

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