Saturday, December 01, 2007

Copyright and Unregistered Berne Convention (non-U.S.) Works

I have recently been lecturing outside the U.S. - in Berlin, Germany and last month in Montreal. The question comes up: should owners of copyrighted works that are created outside the United States register those works in the United States? The first part of the answer is that if the copyright author created the work in a country that is a signatory to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, the copyright owner does not have to register in the U.S. to protect their copyright or to have an action in the U.S. for infringement. The owner of an unregistered Berne Convention work may commence an action in U.S. courts without registering. The owner of a U.S. work must register to have standing to sue in a U.S. court.

So, owners of unregistered Berne Convention works may bring an infringement suit in U.S. courts. The implementing legislation eliminated the requirement of registration for non-U.S. works. Compare 17 U.S.C. §411 (registration a prerequisite for “infringement of the copyright in any United States work”).

But the second part of the answer may be more important to European, Asian, Canadian, Middle Eastern and other attorneys residing in countries that are signatories to the Berne Convention. Unregistered Berne Convention works are not eligible for statutory damages and attorneys' fees under 17 USC §4 12. 2 Melville B. Nimmer & David Nimmer, Nimmer on Copyright, §7.16(c)(1), 7-183 (2006)(the loss of remedies under Section 412 due to failure to register is applicable to works of foreign origin as well as to domestic works).

So, if an attorney from a Berne Convention country wants a client to have what may be strong weapons in a copyright infringement litigation, the advice should be to register the works in the United States.

There is a very narrow possible exception to this general requirement that applies only to broadcasts - but even in that instance, registration will ultimately take place. Georgia Television Co. v. TV News Clips of Atlanta, Inc., 718 F. Supp. 939 (N.D.Ga. 1989) noted the availability of statutory damages for a plaintiff with respect to an unregistered work following implementation of the Berne Convention legislation. However, this case applied narrowly to works “consisting of sounds, images or both, the first fixation of which is made simultaneously with its transmission”. 17 U.S.C. § 411(b). Section 411(b) contains special registration requirements for works that cannot possibly be registered prior to transmission.

Can you wait to register? No. To enjoy the advantages of statutory damages and attorneys fees, a Canadian, British, German or Japanese copyright owner must register, as do U.S. owners, within three months of the first publication of the work or within 30 days of learning of an infringement, whichever date is earlier. 17 U.S.C. § 412.

But wait, there are even more reasons to register, reasons that corporate dealmakers will readily appreciate:

Registration and recordation provide additional advantages to the non-U.S. copyright owner. 17 U.S.C. § 205 provides that registration acts as constructive notice of the facts within the registration. In addition, any transactions involving registered works that have been recorded act to put the world on constructive notice of such a transfer. So if a client enters into a license agreement, a loan transaction, or any other transaction affecting title or rights to a copyright and records it, the world is on notice. Section 205(d) provides that in the case of conflicting transfers of copyright, if it is executed first, the recorded document will have priority in the event of a conflicting transfer if such document executed outside the United States is recorded within two months of such a transfer, or if it is recorded prior to the later transfer. “Otherwise, the later transfer prevails if recorded first in such manner, and if taken in good faith, for valuable consideration or on the basis of a binding promise to pay royalties, and without notice of the earlier transfer.” 17 U.S.C. §205(d).

Accordingly, non-U.S. attorneys are correct in advising their clients of the considerable advantages to registering copyrights in the U.S. as early as possible, to conducting copyright searches before entering into significant license agreements, and to recording transactions involving copyrights promptly after execution.

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