Crash course on copyrights: Introduction

Copyright is the right to copy and publish a particular work. The terms "copy" and "publish" are quite broad. They also cover copying in electronic form, the making of translated versions, the creation of a television program based on the work, and putting the work on the Internet.

Copyright protection is automatic upon creation of the work. In some countries, registration with a Copyright Office has some benefits (like being able to sue, or to get bigger damages if you win).

Copyright is the right to copy and publish

Copyright protects the rights of authors in their literary and artistic works. Actually, the name "copyright" is a bit of a misnomer. The rights an author has with respect to his work goes much beyond an exclusive right to make copies of the work, which is what the term copyright suggests. The French term "droit d'auteur", or the Dutch "auteursrecht" (author's rights), describes the scope of copyright protection more clearly. However, the English term copyright has evolved over the years into the default term.

In the world of copyright, the United States has long been an important player. Its Constitution already recognized that authors should have certain rights with respect to their works. Its first copyright act was enacted in 1790. However, the US approach to copyright protection was, until very recently, very different from the copyright protection in the rest of the world. The most striking difference lies in the fact that in the US, until 1989, it was required to register a work with the US Copyright Office to get copyright protection.

Automatic copyright protection: the Berne Convention

Most European countries, on the other hand, follow the principle that copyright protection is granted automatically upon creation of the work. This principle was first laid down in the Berne Convention (1886). The Berne Convention specifically forbids (in article 5) that a member country can require any formality for getting copyright protection.

In 1989, the Berne Convention became effective in the USA, and from that moment on also US authors automatically obtained copyright on their works. However, many US texts on copyright still echo the old registration principle, which can be very confusing at times.

To confuse matters even more, the requirement for registration has not been abolished completely. To start a lawsuit against infringers, it is still necessary to register the work. Further, registration offers the possibility to obtain statutory damages, rather than only the actual damages from the infringer.

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