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International Copyright

The United States And The Berne Convention

Influenced greatly by its early status as a net importer of copyrighted materials, the United States resisted joining the Berne Convention for over a century. Adherence to the treaty's conventions would have required U.S. publishers of foreign works—many of whom produced pirated copies—to pay ROYALTIES and fees to foreign copyright holders, thus causing a significant amount of money to flow overseas. However, by the end of WORLD WAR II, the United States had become a major exporter of copyrighted materials, and it became clear that it would be to the country's economic advantage if its own authors and copyright holders could be assured of receiving royalties from overseas publishing.

At that point, rather than joining the Berne Convention, the United States lobbied for a different international treaty, the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC) (25 U.S.T. 1341, T.I.A.S. No. 7868), established in 1952 under the auspices of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The United States became a member of the UCC in 1955. Many countries that already belonged to the Berne Convention—including France, West Germany, and Japan—also joined the UCC. The UCC generally operated on the national-treatment principle, thus allowing U.S. authors to receive the same copyright protection in a specific country that the country afforded its own authors, and not requiring the United States to reciprocate that treatment for foreign authors.

The United States experienced still more international pressure to join the Berne Convention after passage of the Copyright Act of 1976 (17 U.S.C.A. §§ 101 et seq.). This statute brought several important features of the Berne Convention into U.S. law, including relaxed standards on the formalities of copyright registration, deposit, and notice, and new provisions that extended the duration of copyright protection to the Berne minimum of the author's life plus 50 years (which has since been extended to life plus 70 years). The act also phased out a protectionist manufacturing clause that had required foreign works to be set in type in the United States in order to receive U.S. copyright protection—a clause that had benefited U.S. printers for decades. (In fact, LOBBYING by printers had long stymied attempts to make the United States part of the Berne Convention.)

By the 1980s, the United States was still one of the few major developed countries not abiding by the Berne Convention. When it became clear that the United States' role as a pariah in international copyright circles had begun to erode its position in reaching other trade agreements concerning intellectual property, Congress finally passed the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 (Pub. L. No. 100-568, 102 Stat. 2853). That act made the United States a party to the Berne Convention beginning in 1989, officially ending U.S. copyright isolationism.

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