The Berne Convention, formally known as the International Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, is an international copyright agreement signed in Berne, Switzerland, in 1886. Since then, the agreement has been updated and revised numerous times and has responded to technological advances. The convention was revised in Paris in 1896, Berlin in 1908, Rome in 1928, Brussels in 1948, Stockholm in 1967, and Paris in 1971. By 1997, 121 countries, including the United States, had signed the accord.

Automatic copyright protection is the central feature of the Berne accord. If a country is a signatory to the Berne Convention that country must extend to citizens of other member countries the same copyright protection and restrictions it extends to its own citizens. If, however, the person responsible for the intellectual content of a work is not a citizen of a member country and his or her work is published or used commercially in a Berne Convention member country, that person's work is protected only to the extent covered by the copyright laws in its country of origin.

The Berne Convention is the wellspring of most other national and international copyright regulations. European movements for international copyright protection were well underway by the mid-1800s. These regional movements and other cooperative agreements between publishers, authors, and national governments solidified the need for an international copyright agreement and led to the 1886 convention. The original signers were Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Haiti, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and Tunisia. Beme rules were also extended to the colonial holdings of signatory nations.

The Berne Convention brought together two views of copyright law. The nations of continental Europe generally held that the interests of the author were preeminent. In the United States and Great Britain, however, it was generally felt that to a great extent public interest superseded the author's claim to the work, especially works of foreign authors. The treatment of both foreign and national authors within each member country was equalized by the Berne Convention. Thus the accord managed to stay true to its preamble which states in part "to protect, in as effective and uniform a manner as possible, the rights of authors in their literary and artistic works."

Rapidly advancing technology during the early 20th century produced new formats for literary and artistic expression. Technical innovations—such as sound recordings, photography, and cinematic developments—presented new challenges to the then existing body of copyright law. Technical advances in communication were complemented by the pervasiveness of a burgeoning worldwide mass media. To meet these changes and challenges, the Berne Convention underwent revisions in Berlin in 1908 and Rome in 1928.

Under the Berlin Act of 1908 copyright protection was extended to photography, sound recordings, and cinematography. Literary works produced as sound recordings were covered, and protection was extended to cinematographers and those authors whose original works were brought to the movie screen. The concept of authorized or assigned usage of a work, particularly of sound recordings, also emerged as a result of the Berlin revisions.

The Rome Act of 1928 addressed the moral rights of the author and broadcaster's access to works of literature, music, and sound recordings. Moral rights cover the right of an author to object to changes in his or her work after the copyright has been transferred, especially if the changes are deemed denigrating to the work or reputation of the author. The Rome Act specified that the moral right or moral claim would extend throughout the life of the author.

The Rome Act also dealt with radio broadcasting and broadcaster's rights. Radio broadcasting was becoming widespread throughout Europe. Some countries, especially those on the continent, gave clear copyright protection regardless of the means of production. In other countries, most notably Great Britain, copyright law as it related to broadcasting was muddled at best. At the Rome meeting some countries wanted copyright restrictions on works transmitted over the airwaves. Other countries viewed radio primarily as an educational tool that should not have copyright infringements or other legal restrictions placed on it. The delegates compromised by allowing the author the right to control his or her work through authorization procedures but also granted the legislative bodies of the Berne Convention signatories power to "regulate the conditions for the exercise of the right."

The Berne Convention also underwent revisions in 1948, 1967, and 1971. The Brussels Act of 1948 covered enforcement of regulations within member countries. The Stockholm Acts of 1967 and 1971 addressed technological innovations and copyright law as it affected developing countries.

In 1997 delegates of 160 countries attended the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) convention in Geneva, Switzerland, and adopted two treaties relating to international copyright. These treaties dealt with digital media and the Internet and revised the Berne Convention for the first time in more than 20 years. Protection for films, music, software, and television was updated especially as these media formats relate to Internet distribution. Although the treaties were supported by the Association of American Publishers, the legislation was opposed by the Digital Future Coalition, a group of 38 library groups, computer trade associations, nonprofit consumer groups, and educational organizations.

Until 1988 the United States was not a signatory to the Berne Convention. Instead the United States had its own internal copyright legislation and was a signatory to the Universal Copyright Convention of 1952 which was sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Universal Copyright Convention was less stringent than the Berne Convention on copyright protection, did not prescribe minimum levels of protection for works produced outside of member nations, and allowed tighter internal controls over copyright applications. The United States also had technical differences with Berne Convention regulations concerning notice, registration, and the legal relationship between domestic manufacturers and copyright protection. In 1976 the United States revised and updated its 1909 copyright legislation with the Copyright Act of 1976, but by 1988 began considering Berne membership. The reasons for this move were largely political. The United States wanted to strengthen copyright relations with the 24 nations that belonged to the Berne Convention but had no reciprocal copyright agreements with the United States. Joining the Berne Convention promised to strengthen U.S. trade relations and further normalize and legitimize global copyright law. On October 20, 1988, the U.S. Senate ratified the Berne Convention Implementation Act, making the United States the 77th signatory.

The Berne accord is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization. This organization was founded in 1967 in Stockholm and works closely with the United Nations. WIPO responsibilities encompass worldwide copyright protection of intellectual property including industrial property (e.g., inventions, trademarks, industrial designs) and copyright property (e.g., literature, music, film, photographs).

SEE ALSO : Intellectual Property

[ Michael Knes ]


Porter, Vincent. Beyond the Berne Convention: Copyright, Broadcasting, and the Single European Market. London: John Libbey, 1991.

U.S. Congress. Committee on Foreign Relations. Berne Convention: Report to Accompany Treaty Doc. 99-27. Washington: GPO, 1988.

World Intellectual Property Organization. '"Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works." Stockholm: World Intellectual Property Organization, 1997. Available from .

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