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This learning pathway on copyright is designed to provide a brief introduction to copyright for an international audience. In a digital world, the implementation of intellectual property rights across national borders can become complex. In this section we focus on working globally and introduce the basic principles of how copyright works in an international context.


Test your knowledge on international copyright

  • If an author publishes a book in Australia, will the publication enjoy the same protections in India?
    • Yes
      • Incorrect. Not necessarily. Typically the copyright protections are determined by the national copyright law where the publication is used. International conventions attempt to provide equivalent treatment of copyright around the world, but national legislation differs considerably.
    • No
      • Correct. In this particular example, in Australia, the duration of copyright protection is life plus 70 years whereas in India the duration is life plus 60 years (with some exceptions, for instance publications before 1955 in Australia.) Therefore in this example the author will not receive the same protections in India.
  • If you source a copyrighted work on the Internet from the United States for use in a handout in Namibia, which national copyright laws are used to govern the protection of the work?
    • Namibia
      • Correct. Both Namibia and the United States of America are signatories of the international Berne Convention which is based on the principle of national treatment of copyright. The Namibian resident will fall under the provisions of the Namibian copyright act.
    • United States of America
      • Incorrect. Usually national copyright law will apply, in this case the Namibian copyright act.
  • If the copyright of a work expires in South Africa, can it be used without restriction in a country which adopts a longer term of copyright protection?
    • Yes
      • Correct. Generally speaking, in terms of the Berne Convention the right to apply the longer term of protection may be denied for signatories of the Convention.
    • No
      • Incorrect. Once the copyright has expired in the country of origin, it is unlikely that a longer term will be upheld by signatories of the Berne Convention.

The answers to these questions provide useful insight into how copyright works in different countries and illustrates the purpose of international copyright agreements and treaties which aim to achieve some level of equivalent treatment of copyright.

International copyright agreements and treaties

There are a range of international agreements and arrangements which aim to harmonise copyright at an international level. These include, for example, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the Trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) and the Berne Convention. The detail of all these international agreements falls outside the scope of this introductory unit.

key points

Key points

International copyright agreements and treaties

  • Countries which negotiate, agree and sign international agreements, bind countries not individuals.
  • Generally speaking international treaties do not specify the copyright in your country, this is done by your government through the national copyright legislation. (Legislators must first approve the agreement before the country can be party to the agreement.)
  • The intent of international copyright agreements is to harmonise the treatment of copyright around the world by agreeing to a set of minimum protections which should be incorporated into national legislation.

For the purposes of this introductory unit a cursory overview of the Berne Convention is adequate.

Berne Convention

The Berne Convention is an international agreement for governing copyright which was first accepted in 1886 in Berne, Switzerland. The intention of the Berne Convention was to promote an international system of equal treatment of copyright through minimum requirements.

The signatories of the Berne Convention agreed to a number of principles and minimum requirements for copyright. For example:

  • Copyright protection is automatic and should not require any formalities.
  • International works of signature countries must enjoy at least the same level of protection provided by the local national legislation.
  • If the copyright term in one country is less than the copyright term in another country, protection of the work in the country with a longer duration of copyright (than the country of origin) may be denied.
  • Countries may impose more restrictive conditions than the minimum requirements specified in the Berne Convention, however signatories may not implement more lenient conditions. (For this reason we advise that you consult your own country’s copyright act.)