Tuesday, June 12, 2007

It's History: The Last Segment on International Copyright History

It seems like the story of international copyright never ends, but I swear that it does, and I swear that this will be my last entry devoted to the topic. (Really!)

Fast-forward (or rewind, depends on what point of view you're looking at it from) to America in 1976. Not only were we celebrating 200 years of existence, but the U.S. Copyright Act was also being revised, for two main reasons. One, the development of new technologies impacted copyrighted materials because of the fact that duplication of copyrighted materials was becoming easier than ever, and this led to confusion over what could be copyrighted and what constituted infringement. And two, the act needed to be revised in anticipation of the U.S. joining the Berne Convention.

That's right, folks. Pick those jaws up off the floor. The U.S. finally decided to join Berne (or, in 1976, at least to think about joining Berne in the near-ish future--good enough). So we revised away. The terms of protection were extended to life of the author plus 50 years and copyright protection was extended to unpublished works. Fair use guidelines were also established for copies made for educational purposes (there'll be more on fair use coming up in a near-future entry). After the '76 revision, the U.S. wanted other countries to be more stringent in protecting their copyrighted exports (especially technological exports, since it was the time when computers and software were starting to boom). Other countries gave us the "As if!" After all, we still weren't members of Berne, so even though we complained that other countries were too lax, we ourselves didn't even meet Berne's stricter standards.

So in 1988, over 100 years after its inception, the U.S. finally joined the Berne Convention through Congress's passing of the Berne Implementation Act. As part of this, the U.S. did away with the formalities involving copyright, such as notice and registration. These were no longer required in order for a work to be protected by copyright. But even though there was much fanfare when the U.S. revised the Copyright Act in '76, when it finally joined Berne the press was relatively quiet. Perhaps the U.S. was trying to keep things mum in order to NOT dissuade people from still registering for copyright (though now it was voluntary)? But even though it was now not required for people to register for copyright, there were still advantages, such as the ability to recover attorney's fees and statutory damages in the case of infringement.

So that, in a nutshell, is the story of the history of copyright here and in our interaction with other countries. Of course, more stuff has happened since then, but a lot of it I feel will fit better in other sections of discussion on this blog, so I'll hold off for now. I never really knew just how convoluted the history of copyright in America was, especially in this country's dealings with other countries. While the U.S. may have seemed like a sour grape by not wanting to join Berne earlier and being stingy with protection for foreign authors, it hasn't all been negative. The U.S. did emphasize the importance of protecting works and new technologies (and protecting works from new technologies) early on, before other countries saw the importance of this. And while I wish that the U.S. and other countries in the world could have happily gotten along in a hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya kind of way from the get-go, there's something to be said for the U.S. sticking to its guns and not allowing other countries to influence it and its decisions. While I don't 100% agree with everything the U.S. did during the course of copyright history, I do admire the fact that from the start, this nation recognized the importance of protecting the intellectual property of its citizens.

Juicier topics will soon follow, like fair use and public domain. This is going to start getting really interesting... I promise!

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