Monday, 25 April 2016

Copyright - An International System

Photo: WIPO Headquarters, Geneva, by Yann, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The basic rule of copyright is that the author of a "work" (such as written text, a painting, a photograph) owns the copyright.  The owner can the transfer ("assign") the copyright to another person, for example the buyer of the work.  It happens every day: you hire a photographer to take your photo, you pay for the photo, you and the photographer agree that you own the photo.

But what if there is a dispute about the ownership of the photo? Or about a party's ability to use it? What if the photographer wants to  use a copy of the photo on their website but you don't like that idea?  Or what if you want to print a copy of the photograph somewhere that the photographer finds embarrassing?

Disputes about copyright are settled by the copyright law that applies to the commercial relationship between the parties, usually the law of the place where the contract was made. This law will supply rules about things like ownership, how ownership is transferred, and whether the author retains any rights after transfer.

What happens when copyrighted works cross borders? What law applies to a movie made in the US is screened in Argentina, for example? Copyright laws are very similar across countries. That is because most countries have signed up to international copyright treaties.  Compliance with those treaties is managed by an international organisation, the WIPO. The WIPO plays an important rule as a forum for the discussion of new developments in Intellectual Property law.

The development of an international system of IP law has underpinned the expansion and internationalisation of popular culture. Movie makers, artists and writers can export their works all over the world, through the internet or otherwise, profitably because they can rely on interconnected copyright laws to protect their rights.  This is why governments take strong action to stamp out piracy and counterfeiting, which undermine the international copyright protection system.

 April 26 is World Intellectual Property Day. It is an opportunity for us to think about this key part of modern culture.

[This blog post is not intended as legal advice for any particular person, but as an informational and educational discussion of topics of general interest.  The author, James Irving, is a commercial lawyer for individuals and small businesses who practises in Perth, Australia.  You are welcome to visit the Irving Law website for further information.]

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