Copyright laws around the world

Note: Most of the links provided below point at sources outside the WebMuseum. They have been last checked for validity in June 2006.

Who owns the Copyright ?

Ownership of a book, manuscript, painting, artwork, audio or video record does not give the possessor the copyright. A Museum owning a unique original painting of Van Gogh, or an individual buying the latest Madonna CD (edited in millions of copies) are exactly in the same situation: transfer of ownership of any material object that embodies a protected work does not of itself convey any rights in the copyright. This little-known fact is documented unequivocally in many places, including:

The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work. Only the author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright. In the case of works made for hire, the employer and not the employee is considered to be the author.

Photographer's Copyright on artwork reproductions

Michael Greenhalgh has a very interesting webpage explaining Copyright on various types of Art Objects: There may be two copyrights: copyright in the artistic work (for example, a painting) and copyright in the photograph of the artistic work. You will generally need permission from the owner of copyright in the artistic work unless the copyright has expired. It is unlikely you need permission in relation to the photograph, if the photograph depicts nothing but the artistic work and is indistinguishable from other photographs of the same work. Otherwise, you will generally need permission from the owner of copyright in the photograph.

In other words, when someone photographs a painting of Van Gogh in a museum, producing a picture that is indistinguishable from other photographs of the same work, this cannot be considered an original art creation: it is precisely requested that the photographer annihilate his own personality to only mirror the artist's own personality and reflect the artwork with maximum fidelity through the photograph. Thus, the photographer does not hold any copyright on the picture itself.

Of course, the above can only be proven right by going into court and feeding an army of lawyers to nitpick over the interpretation of local laws. And even then, this would only apply to a specific country or jurisdiction, so it would have to be restarted all over again elsewhere. To be on the safe side, the WebMuseum requests that photographers contributing pictures to the WebMuseum agree to transfer all of their rights to the WebMuseum curator.

This theory has been tested and proven in U.S. courts already: In Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp., 36 F.Supp.2d 191 (S.D.N.Y. 1999), the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that exact photographic copies of public domain images could not be covered by copyright because they lack originality. Even if accurate reproductions may require a great deal of skill, experience and effort, it is a process that lacks originality, a key element for copyrightability under U.S. law. The decision applies only to two-dimensional images such as paintings.

Duration of Copyright

The International Berne Copyright treaty (Paris text 1971) states that copyright lasts until 50 years after the death of the author -- for countries that signed this treaty.

European Community countries: artists rights societies and pay-per-view lobbies have unfortunately succeeded in raising this duration to 70 years after the artists death -- why do scientific patents only last 20 or 14 years then -- after filing the patent, not even after the inventor's death!

Eastern-Europe countries applying for EU membership are also progressively passing laws to extend duration from 50 to 70 years, such as Hungary's Act No. LXXVI. of 1999 on Copyright, available on the Hungarian Creative Artists Association website.

USA: The current copyright situation in the USA is quite messy and incomprehensible since its legislation is different from everywhere on the planet, and copyright duration depends on many different factors; there is some documentation at www.copyright.gov, including How long Copyright protection endures. Worse, the Uruguay Round Agreements Acts (URAA) of 1996 restored copyright on works that had fallen in the public domain already! The University of North Carolina has published a good summary of when U.S. Works pass into the public domain, and Bromberg & Sunstein LLP provides a flowchart for determining when U.S. Copyrights in fixed works expire.

Fortunately, most countries (such as Australia, Japan, Canada, the Russian Federation) still apply the 50-years post-mortem duration, as mandated by the International Berne Copyright treaty.

The legal situation in Australia (50 years post-mortem) is documented on the Australia Copyright Council website, booklet G23, Duration of Copyright.

The legal situation in Japan (50 years post-mortem) is documented on the Japanese Copyright Research and Information Center website.

The legal situation in Canada (50 years post-mortem) is documented on the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency website.

Finally, many national Copyright legislations are available from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization website.


The information on this webpage is current to the best of my knowledge as of August 2002. Of course this is not (nor does it replace) professional legal advice. A capital point of the WebMuseum License Agreement is that it is the responsibility of the visitor to ensure copyright compliance with local laws of the country where the visitor is downloading information to.

This is not a law firm, and does not provide legal services or advice.

21 Jun 2006, Nicolas Pioch - Top - Up - Info
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