Country of Origin and Internet Publication: Applying the Berne Convention in the Digital Age
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Historically, determining the country of origin of a published work presented few challenges, because works were generally published physically – whether in print or otherwise – in a distinct location or few locations. However, publishing opportunities presented by new technologies mean that we now live in a world of simultaneous publication – works that are first published online are published simultaneously to every country in world in which there is Internet connectivity. While this is certainly advantageous for the dissemination and impact of information and creative works, it creates potential complications under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (“Berne Convention”), an international intellectual property agreement to which most countries in the world now subscribe. Under the Berne Convention’s national treatment provisions, rights accorded to foreign copyright works may not be subject to any formality, such as registration requirements (although member countries are free to impose formalities in relation to domestic copyright works). In Kernel Records Oy v. Timothy Mosley p/k/a Timbaland, et al. however, the Florida Southern District Court of the United States ruled that first publication of a work on the Internet via an Australian website constituted “simultaneous publication all over the world,” and therefore rendered the work a “United States work” under the definition in section 101 of the U.S. Copyright Act, subjecting the work to registration formality under section 411. This ruling is in sharp contrast with an earlier decision delivered by the Delaware District Court in Håkan Moberg v. 33T LLC, et al. which arrived at an opposite conclusion. The conflicting rulings of the U.S. courts reveal the problems posed by new forms of publishing online and demonstrate a compelling need for further harmonization between the Berne Convention, domestic laws and the practical realities of digital publishing. In this article, we argue that even if a work first published online can be considered to be simultaneously published all over the world it does not follow that any country can assert itself as the “country of origin” of the work for the purpose of imposing domestic copyright formalities. More specifically, we argue that the meaning of “United States work” under the U.S. Copyright Act should be interpreted in line with the presumption against extraterritorial application of domestic law to limit its application to only those works with a real and substantial connection to the United States. There are gaps in the Berne Convention’s articulation of “country of origin” which provide scope for judicial interpretation, at a national level, of the most pragmatic way forward in reconciling the goals of the Berne Convention with the practical requirements of domestic law. We believe that the uncertainties arising under the Berne Convention created by new forms of online publishing can be resolved at a national level by the sensible application of principles of statutory interpretation by the courts. While at the international level we may need a clearer consensus on what amounts to “simultaneous publication” in the digital age, state practice may mean that we do not yet need to explore textual changes to the Berne Convention.
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