Copyright law can be confusing, especially with the abundance of misinformation circulated. In a perfect world, artists, art dealers, art lovers, and everyone else in the art community would live in harmony and there would never be any conflicts. Unfortunately disagreements do arise. Therefore, in the event of a copyright conflict, artists should be aware of what their rights are. This series of articles will explain, generally, the basics of copyright law for artists.
Part IV: International Copyright Law
We live in a global society where information is easily shared. Beginning in the late 1800s with the advent of the telegraph and railroads, followed by telephony, cars and planes, society became more mobile. In order to promote and share artistic creation across borders, countries discovered a need to provide reciprocal copyright protection for artists.
However, international law is fundamentally different than the laws within a country’s borders. Domestically, laws are essentially rules backed by force. In the United States, when a person breaks a law, there are prescribed consequences—loss of money, property or liberty—enforced by police, courts and other systems. Since an international law enforcement entity does not exist, countries subject themselves to international laws by voluntary agreements called treaties.
There are many international intellectual property treaties of which the United States is a member. The most notable for copyright is the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. Created in Berne, Switzerland in 1886 and comprising primarily European countries, original members—or signors—agreed to extend copyright protection to artists who are citizens of all other signors’ countries in exchange for reciprocal protection for their own artists. Over the past 128 years, the Berne Convention has been amended multiple times, and additional countries have elected to join. The United States was a latecomer, not joining the Berne Convention until 1989. As of 2013, the Berne Convention included 167 nations.
While the Berne Convention does require some uniform baseline protection (for example, all works except photographs and cinema must be protected for a minimum of 50 years after the artist’s death), generally it provides for protection based on the country of origin. In other words, all members of the Berne Convention must extend their own protection to other members, but nothing more. In the United States protection for works created on or after Jan. 1, 1978, lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. Therefore, artists in all 166 other Berne Convention countries are provided the same life-plus-70 duration within the United States. However, in countries that provide the minimum life-plus-50 duration, American artists are only entitled to life-plus-50 protection in those countries.
International copyright protection and enforcement is overseen by the World Intellectual Property Organization. The Berne Convention provides very little guidance regarding enforcement; however, the WIPO Copyright Treaty requires participating countries to ensure that enforcement procedures are available under each country’s law. Therefore, if an artist’s work is infringed upon in another country, there would be remedies available to compensate the artist and to prevent or deter further infringements. What those remedies are depends on the country of origin, the country of infringement, and many other factors.
Specific information regarding the Berne Convention, WIPO and other international intellectual property treaties, including a complete list of signors, can be found in Circular 38A.
For more general information regarding anything presented in this article, visit the applicable Circulars presented by the United States Copyright Office.
This article is meant for general, informational purposes only and should not be used in lieu of professional legal advice for individual circumstances. Every situation is unique. If you need legal advice, please consult an attorney. This article in no way establishes an attorney/client relationship between its author and reader.
Cara Dehnert Huffman is a lawyer and passionate supporter of the arts. She teaches entertainment law as well as other courses in the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management department at Columbia College Chicago and is a graduate of its Master in Arts Management program. Along with teaching for Columbia College, Dehnert Huffman is the former executive director of I Am Logan Square and has worked for Lawyers for the Creative Arts, the Illinois Arts Council and other creative Chicago organizations.