The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, usually known as the Berne Convention, is an international agreement governing copyright, which was first accepted in Berne, Switzerland, in 1886.
The Berne Convention formally mandated several aspects of modern copyright law; it introduced the concept that a copyright exists the moment a work is “fixed”, rather than requiring registration. It also enforces a requirement that countries recognize copyrights held by the citizens of all other signatory countries.
The Berne Convention requires its signatories to treat the copyright of works of authors from other signatory countries (known as members of the Berne Union) at least as well as those of its own nationals. For example, French copyright law applies to anything published or performed in France, regardless of where it was originally created.
In addition to establishing a system of equal treatment that internationalised copyright amongst signatories, the agreement also required member states to provide strong minimum standards for copyright law.
Copyright under the Berne Convention must be automatic; it is prohibited to require formal registration. However, when the United States joined the Convention 1 March 1989, it continued to make statutory damages and attorney’s fees only available for registered works.
The Berne Convention states that all works except photographic and cinematographic shall be copyrighted for at least 50 years after the author’s death, but parties are free to provide longer terms, as the European Union did with the 1993 Directive on harmonising the term of copyright protection. For photography, the Berne Convention sets a minimum term of 25 years from the year the photograph was created, and for cinematography the minimum is 50 years after first showing, or 50 years after creation if it hasn’t been shown within 50 years after the creation. Countries under the older revisions of the treaty may choose to provide their own protection terms, and certain types of works (such as phonorecords and motion pictures) may be provided shorter terms.
If the author is unknown, because for example the author was deliberately anonymous or worked under a pseudonym, the Convention provides for a term of 50 years after publication (“after the work has been lawfully made available to the public”). However, if the identity of the author becomes known, the copyright term for known authors (50 years after death) applies.
Although the Berne Convention states that the copyright law of the country where copyright is claimed shall be applied, Article 7(8) states that “unless the legislation of that country otherwise provides, the term shall not exceed the term fixed in the country of origin of the work”, i.e., an author is normally not entitled a longer copyright abroad than at home, even if the laws abroad give a longer term. This is commonly known as “the rule of the shorter term”. Not all countries have accepted this rule.