September 9th, 1886 – Chasing the Publishing Pirates

Today-In-History

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, usually known as the Berne Convention, is an international agreement governing copyright, which was first accepted in Berne, Switzerland, on September 9th, 1886.

The Berne Convention formally mandated several aspects of modern copyright law; it introduced the concept that a copyright exists the moment a work is “fixed”, rather than requiring registration. It also enforces a requirement that countries recognize copyrights held by the citizens of all other signatory countries.

The Pirate Publisher—An International Burlesque that has the Longest Run on Record, from Puck, 1886, satirizes the ability of publishers to take works from one country and publish them in another without paying the original authors.

The Berne Convention was developed at the instigation of Victor Hugo of the Association Littéraire et Artistique Internationale. Thus it was influenced by the French “right of the author” (droit d’auteur), which contrasts with the Anglo-Saxon concept of “copyright” which only dealt with economic concerns. Under the Convention, copyrights for creative works are automatically in force upon their creation without being asserted or declared. An author need not “register” or “apply for” a copyright in countries adhering to the Convention. As soon as a work is “fixed”, that is, written or recorded on some physical medium, its author is automatically entitled to all copyrights in the work and to any derivative works, unless and until the author explicitly disclaims them or until the copyright expires. Foreign authors are given the same rights and privileges to copyrighted material as domestic authors in any country that signed the Convention.

Before the Berne Convention, national copyright laws usually only applied for works created within each country. So for example a work published in United Kingdom by a British national would be covered by copyright there, but could be copied and sold by anyone in France. Dutch publisher Albertus Willem Sijthoff, who rose to prominence in the trade of translated books, wrote to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands in 1899 in opposition to the convention over concerns that its international restrictions would stifle the Dutch print industry.

The Berne Convention followed in the footsteps of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property of 1883, which in the same way had created a framework for international integration of the other types of intellectual property: patents, trademarks and industrial designs.

Like the Paris Convention, the Berne Convention set up a bureau to handle administrative tasks. In 1893 these two small bureaux merged and became the United International Bureaux for the Protection of Intellectual Property (best known by its French acronym BIRPI), situated in Berne. In 1960, BIRPI moved to Geneva, to be closer to the United Nations and other international organizations in that city. In 1967 it became the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and in 1974 became an organization within the United Nations.

The Berne Convention was revised in Paris in 1896 and in Berlin in 1908, completed in Berne in 1914, revised in Rome in 1928, in Brussels in 1948, in Stockholm in 1967 and in Paris in 1971, and was amended in 1979.

The World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty was adopted in 1996 to address the issues raised by information technology and the Internet, which were not addressed by the Berne Convention.


 

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