I’ve had several people ask me about works that were copyrighted and/or published in other countries, and whether these foreign works have rights in the U.S. If they do have rights, are those rights different from those of U.S. works?
The answer is the classic lawyer response: “It depends.” The U.S. does extend copyright rights to foreign works if those works fall into one of the following categories:
- The work has not been published. All unpublished works that qualify for copyright protection get that protection, regardless of where they come from. If it hasn’t hit the market yet, it’s off-limits.
- The work was first published in a country that has a copyright treaty with the U.S. There are a few copyright treaties out there, with the most notable one being the Berne Convention, adopted in 1886. The U.S. is a signer of the Berne Convention, and one of the requirements of that treaty is that all signers must give full copyright protection to the published works of all other signers. So if a country has signed on to the Berne Convention, then the U.S. must give works published in that country the same copyright protection that works published in the U.S. receive. This rule extends to all other copyright treaties the U.S. has signed as well. So before you decide to quote from a book published abroad, check to see if that country is part of a copyright treaty with the U.S.
- The work was written by an author who is a citizen or domiciliary of a country that has a copyright treaty with the U.S. That’s a mouthful, so let me break that down. Even if the work you want to use was first published in a country that does not have a copyright treaty with the U.S., it still might receive protection, depending on who the author is and where they live. If the author is a citizen of a country that is part of a copyright treaty with the U.S., then the work is still protected under U.S. copyright law. Likewise, if the author lives in a country that has a copyright treaty with the U.S., then the work is protected under U.S. law. So in addition to checking where the work was originally published, you’ll need to check on where the author lives and what country they’re a citizen of.
If the work falls into one or more of the above categories, then it receives full protection under U.S. copyright law, just as if it was created and published in the United States. As with U.S. works, foreign works do not have to be registered with the Copyright Office, but they will receive additional protection if they are. Given the number of countries that have signed on to the Berne Convention (currently about 179), it’s safest to assume that a foreign work is protected under U.S. copyright law.
If you have questions about copyright protection for foreign works, or you want to check and make sure you aren’t infringing on someone else’s copyright, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.