Sunday, June 10, 2007

International Copyright: The Saga Continues

Picking up in 1891: 101 years after first adopting federal copyright protection, the United States finally passed an ammendment protecting foreign authors. But, as history (and the previous entry) proves, the U.S. wasn't going to give up without a fight. Or without being somewhat sneaky about things. The protection afforded to foreign authors by this U.S. ammendment involved some smoke and mirrors. For instance, foreign authors could keep their rights but foreign publishers had none. And foreign authors had to follow all sorts of strict conventions, such as registering and depositing copies of their works in the U.S. on or before their date of publication anywhere else in the world. Also, foreign authors' works had to be printed from type that was set in the U.S. The firm restrictions were eventually relaxed somewhat, though they were still far more strict than anything followed by Berne countries.

Meanwhile, Americans discoverd a "back door" into Berne that allowed them to reap the benefits of publishing in foreign countries without having to actually comply by what was set forth by Berne: if a work was first published in a Berne country simultaneously, it would be protected in all Berne countries even if the author wasn't a Berne author. This meant that many American authors were simultaneously publishing their books in Berne countries like Canada or England. This pissed off the Berne countries so they created a protocol that allowed its members to decide if they would deny protection to authors whose native countries didn't provide adequate protection to foreign authors.

At this point, the term "cat fight" is coming to prominence in my mind...

All this back and forth does indeed seem catty, especially when we can see that the majority of the rest of the world was cheerily humming along under the happy umbrella of Berne. Why was the United States so resistant to foreign protection? Because American publishers were reaping huge benefits from the sale of foreign books--books that they weren't paying foreign authors to use.

But by midway through the twentieth century, things absolutely needed to change. The tumultuous first half of the century (war, depression, more war) meant that the tussle over copyright was shelved in favor of other things. But after the United States emerged victorious from World War II not only as a world superpower but also as a huge exporter of entertainment, the need for a less isolated (perhaps even sobbish?) stance on foreign copyright was necessary. The United States still wasn't interested in Berne, whose countries by this point had added "moral rights" that allowed authors to prevent mutilation of their works and whose authors were protected for life plus 50 years (U.S. term was a max of 56 years), so it decided, "If you can't beat 'em, create something that'll placate 'em." Here the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC) was born.

Despite being negotiated under the brand new United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UCC was really created for the U.S. It was the only country that really needed to get itself straightened out in terms of foreign copyright because the rest of the world happily held hands under Berne. By 1955, the UCC went into effect, protecting the United States through a lower level of protection. A minimal protection time period of 25 years was established, so the U.S. was covered with its twenty-eight-year first term of protection. The UCC also got rid of the manufacturing stipulations and the need for a formal registration of copyright. Now all that was needed was for the author to indicate his or her name and the year of publication next to the copyright symbol of a "c" enclosed in a circle.

The fact that the United States had finally caved in, in its own unique way, was enough for the other Berne countries, and authors from other countries started using the UCC copyright notice on their works. This went on for 33 years, until even more changes. (Stay tuned for more on that in the next entry.)

I think one of the things that amazes me so much about the United States' unwillingness to play nice with basically the rest of the world on the copyright issue up until this point is the fact that freedom of speech was purportedly of such great value in the U.S. Free expression and freedom of the press were encouraged and in fact protected since the very infancy of the country. So why then did the same country make it so difficult for authors from other countries (who were freely expressing themselves) to have some level of protection from being taken advantage of? Was it an "our way or the highway" mentality? Did the U.S. feel threatened? Was the U.S. just being greedy and allowing publishers to swindle foreign authors for as long as possible?

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