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The History of International Copyright Law

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years, 6 months ago

The History of International Copyright Law

Today, the problem of piracy on the Internet and how to deal with this across countries and continents is a dilemma that continues. However, as Kevin Baker explains, this is not the first time that writers and artists faced the problem of piracy and international law. He explains that “a century and a half ago Charles Dickens faced the same battle, though back then the main culprits were not e-wizards but Americans”(Baker). Dickens was a determined English writer who worked his way up from nothing to become the most popular writer in the world, and had to fight the publishing pirates in America. Baker explains that British authors, such as Dickens, were not the only writers hurt by the lack of international copyright law. Few publishers were willing to pay American authors for books when they could “rob” better-known British books for free. Great authors like, Herman Melville, Emerson, Longfellow, and Hawthorne had to pay publishers an advance, rather than vice versa, in order to have their books published.


It was the invention of the steamboat that advanced the copyright problem. The problem was now a two way street. Americans were stealing English works and the English were stealing American works. As soon as a good American publisher had issued a book that had promise, the pirates rushed out an edition across the Atlantic. At first, there was an arrangement, though defective, known as trade courtesy. This was that an understanding with an overseas author was respected. But after the Civil War, under the stress of economic readjustment, this agreement crumbled.


The first recorded movement in the United States for international copyright began in 1837. For the next five years petitions for a law were signed by prominent authors both in the United States and across the Atlantic (An Example seen below).



There were opponents to an international copyright law. Opponents felt that an international copyright law would be similar to a protective tariff and that American education would be hurt by the increased price of books and by the fact that European literature would no longer be able to be adapted to Americans’ needs. In 1883 the American Copyright League was founded and in 1887 the American Publishers’ Copyright League was established, leading to the United States’ first international copyright law in 1891 (Ward and Waller).


The major event that led the United States’ first international copyright law was the Berne Convention, signed on September 8, 1886, by Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Haiti, Italy, Liberia, Spain, Switzerland, and Tunis. Under the Berne Convention, international copyright benefits were to be had by all citizens of the nations that signed and covered translations, newspapers, periodicals, dramas, and adaptations (Bolino). The United States was not a part of this convention and as Bolino states, “thus, the United States was left as the lone important power outside of its principles. The passage of the Platt-Simmonds Act in 1891, after 55 years of debate, meant that at last the United States would be bound by the principle of reciprocity and that it would be willing to recognize the rights of foreigners (although the 1891 law does so conditionally, because the first law made protection of foreigners dependent upon manufacturers in the United States)” (Bolino).

As Samuels discusses, “the cleverness of the 1891 amendment was in the discovery of a compromise that granted the foreign authors the rights that they demanded, while still denying foreign publishers any rights” (Samuels). Samuels continues that this was achieved in the 1891 by the manufacturing clause. This clause provided that, as a condition of copyright protection, any foreign “book, photograph, chromo or lithograph” had to be “’printed from type set within the limits of the United States.’” Also, foreign authors had to register their works and deposit copies in the United States on or before the date it was published anywhere in the world. It was very hard for foreign authors to meet these requirements, and therefore, there were numerous objections. Over the next few decades, Congress did come up with several amendments to fix the clause. For example, a grace period was established before authors abroad would have to comply with U.S. formalities. However, these amendments did little to fix the fact that most works had to be printed in the United States. The efforts at reform were stopped during the beginning of the twentieth century because of the World Wars and depression. However, after World War II, the United States began being an exporter of copyrighted works including books, music, movies, etc. As Samuels said, “It was unseemly that we should remain isolated in the international copyright community” (Samuels).


In 1952, the Universal Copyright Convention was adopted. This was “national treatment,” just like the Berne Convention. The major concession that the United States did have to make as a result of the Universal Copyright Convention was in dispensing with some copyright formalities. The United States had to waive any requirement that foreign works be registered in the United States. The Universal Copyright Convention remained the major international copyright treaty of the United States for thirty-three years (Samuels).


Finally, in 1988, the United States joined the Berne Convention. As Samuels states, “The major concession was that the United States finally, reluctantly, did away with copyright formalities. The manufacturing clause had died in 1986; and in 1988, we agreed that copyright notice and registration would no longer be required for copyright protection” (Samuels).


In 1996 the TRIPS agreement was put in to place by the World Trade Organization. “Desiring to reduce distortions and impediments to international trade, and taking into account the need to promote effective and adequate protection of intellectual property rights, and to ensure that measures and procedures to enforce intellectual property rights do not themselves become barriers to legitimate trade.” (World Trade Organization). Click on hyperlink to get full details of the agreement. [http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/trips_e/t_agm1_e.htm]


As Samuels states, “With the transnational technologies of radio, television, and the Internet, copyright has become a truly international challenge.”



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