Copyright Part 1 – Almost Everything I Know

Copyright Part 1 – Almost Everything I Know

From Berne to Bono with TRIPS in between

Berne and the Basics

International Copyright Protection

Copyright Part 1, we can summarize as, basically, we owe it all to French poet and novelist Victor Hugo.

The famous author of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Les Miserables” founded the Association Litt’raire et Artistique Internationale in 1878 to campaign for an international convention for the protection of creators’ rights. The efforts of the Association were rewarded eight years later, on September 9th, 1886, with the adoption of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

Copyright Part 1

Table of Contents

Berne remains the basis of our international copyright protection.

The United States was very slow to get with the program, though. It took them over a century. And the story of how they did eventually get there illustrates significant transatlantic differences in legal perspectives on rights.

America has always been ambivalent about the notion of intellectual property, both constitutionally and philosophically. According to founding democratic theories, ideas were expected to flow freely and become the possession of everyone. Their legal framework is thus an expression of this desire to limit any exclusive rights that authors have over their works and discoveries while preserving the freedom of others to exploit and develop them.

That’s why U.S. copyright was protected for a fixed, renewable term. In 1790, the term lasted 14 years and could be renewed only once. Between 1831 and 1909, this maximum allowable term of 28 years was doubled.

Once the term was completed, of course, a work entered the public domain.

In comparison, Berne offered protection lasting until 50 years after an author’s death.

Also, under US legal procedures, a work had to contain a formal copyright notice and be registered at the Copyright Office. Under the Berne Convention, however, no such requirements were necessary for copyright to exist – if you made it, then it was unquestionably yours: simple.

But the U.S. was unwilling to modify its own domestic copyright law just in order to conform with the conditions of some foreign-devised system, especially one built on the totally alien and equally fundamental French principle of “moral rights”.

Moral Rights

“Moral Rights” – it’s a crucial concept in copyright and one we’ll return to. For the moment, let me get away with defining them as the absolutely inalienable rights of artists over the work they create and the uses to which it’s put. Remember that. We’ll get back to it later.

Generally speaking, the European tendency has been to give greater priority to the interests of the artist, whereas, in the tricky legal job of balancing public access with private rights, the New World approach leans more favorably towards access to ideas and the freedom to use them.


It was the rise of late twentieth-century corporatism that changed things.

TRIPS & Globalisation

Towards the close of the last century, multinationals became increasingly concerned to maximise their intellectual property privileges around the world. Consistent and coordinated pressure from these heavy corporations – mainly pharmaceutical giants – succeeded in making rights issues a core priority of 1980s US trade policy. They nailed their interests very firmly on the agenda of the Uruguay round of negotiations for the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs (GATT) from 1986 onwards.

Such intense lobbying resulted in the U.S. finally changing its national copyright law as required and joining Berne in 1988. And, by the end of GATT, an agreement known as TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights ) had been added to the “Marrakesh Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organisation”, signed in Morocco on 15th April 1994.

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By making ratification of TRIPS a requirement of WTO membership, the World Trade Organisation can exert huge power and influence over any member-state or serious wannabe who threatens to step out of line on the basic rules laid out in “Annex 1c: Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, Including Trade in Counterfeit Goods “…

“With respect to copyright, parties are required to comply with the substantive provisions of the Berne Convention for the protection of literary and artistic works”

TRIPS marked the move to the big major globalization of copyright, but the basic ideas still go back to Berne and Victor Hugo.

  1.  Copyright must be granted automatically, and not based upon any “formality”, such as registrations or systems of renewal.
  2.  Copyright terms must extend to 50 years after the death of the author (with a few differences for film and photography and broadcasting).


Already, by the time of TRIPS, the length of term in Europe was being extended to the life of the author plus 70 years.

Thanks to Sonny Bono and Mickey Mouse, the U.S. would soon follow suit.


Any state party to the Berne Convention was free to opt for longer terms of copyright protection if it wanted, and Germany had chosen the longest term of any European Union member. So, when the EU aimed for one single common duration across all member states, it was the German standard they picked for the ྙ and ྜ Directive on harmonizing the term of copyright protection.

Life of the author plus 70 years.

Corporate machinery moved immediately to lobby the United States Congress for the same term of protection as Europe and found a working partner in Representative Sonny Bono – whose opinion was that copyright should last forever.

Because of Disney’s extensive efforts in working for the passage of a bill that would serve to delay the inevitable entry of their prime property into the public domain, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 was also known as “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act”.

It succeeded and passed into law.

The Basic Deal in Europe & the US Right Now:

  1. if you write it, you own it
  2. ownership lasts for 70 years after your death.

Copyright Part 1 - Historical Apologies

I skipped a bunch of stuff.

There have been loads of intervening treaties and conventions and negotiations, each significant and important for any full and complete version. But I didn’t want you to fall asleep. So I cut some corners. With globalization a fait accompli, they seem minor diversionary skirmishes on a journey to inevitable conclusions.

I wanted to outline a more direct route: today’s governing rules & where they came from.

And I wanted to introduce the idea of moral rights.

So I left a lot out.

About Colin Lazzerini

ColinLTogether with his song-writing collaborator, Pat Coleman, Colin Lazzerini is the owner of ‘Hip Pocket Music’, and two small independent specialist labels – first the decidedly jazzed ‘RoadHouse’ and later a little singer-songwriter imprint called ‘Root Cellar’.  While Colin admits he fantasized some about the idea when he was younger, like lots of other kids, he never really seriously expected to have any career in music at all  – but just sort of drifted into it.  Almost as if dreams were magnetic.

Except for the occasional mistaken spotty teen-aged outing – it was actually not until he was approaching my thirtieth birthday in foreign parts that he embarked upon performance with earnest commitment and real intent.   Even then, a couple of busy decades slipped by between his first stumbling attempts at making original songs and his happy arrival at a truly satisfying level of craft confidence and the ability to deliver professional goods.

Related Articles

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Useful Links

Fill in some blanks if you want to:

  1. World Intellectual Property Organisation.
  2. All 73 articles of the TRIPS agreement, their text, and interpretation are accessible through the World Trade Organisation website.
  3. Peter B. Hirtle built a neat little chart of copyright expiry for his “Recent Changes To The Copyright Law: Copyright Term Extension” (Archival Outlook, January/February 1999), and you can score an updated version (July 6, 2004).
  4. Duke Law School hosted a conference on Public Domain issues in 2001 – you can read the papers and see what legal people are thinking about.

Part II – What It Means To You

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