Protection for Works of Foreign Origin Under the 1909 Copyright Act
29 Pages Posted: 29 Jul 2014 Last revised: 31 Jul 2014
Date Written: 2009
One of the principal goals of the 1909 Copyright Act was to simplify and streamline the formalities required to obtain copyright protection. Before the 1909 Copyright Act, authors had to register their works before publication in order to be eligible for copyright protection; and notice of the registration had to be included on all copies published in the United States. If a work was published anywhere in the world before registration, or if the notice was omitted when the work was published domestically, the work went into the public domain. Under the 1909 Act, however, authors only had to publish their works with proper copyright notice in order to be eligible for copyright protection.
This change introduced an ambiguity with regard to works first published outside the Untied States. If a work had to be published with proper notice to receive copyright protection, but notice was required only on copies published in the United States, what was the effect if a work was first published outside the United States without proper notice? Some courts held that mere publication in a country with whom the U.S. had copyright relations was sufficient to invest a work with a federal statutory copyright; while others held that such a work neither received a federal statutory copyright nor was it placed in the public domain by foreign publication without notice. This uncertainty can result in copyright terms that differ by as much as one hundred years, depending on how the ambiguity is resolved.
In this article, the author concludes that Congress most likely intended that works first published outside the United States without proper notice were not eligible for copyright protection and became part of the public domain. This result means that such works were eligible for the copyright restoration for works of foreign origin that became effective in 1996, and that parties utilizing such works should be treated as reliance parties under the restoration statute, rather than as ordinary infringers.
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