Dealing with a copyright question within our own borders can be challenging enough, but once a foreign county is thrown into the mix, many novices and copyright experts alike have been known to back away. Yet many copyright questions about foreign works may be answered by keeping these simple propositions in mind:
Proposition 1: When in the U.S., apply U.S. law.
If you find and use the work while you are inside the borders of the United States, you should apply U.S. law. For example, the U.S. law of fair use applies to a foreign work as well as to a domestic work. It also means that the question of whether the foreign work is protected at all in the U.S. is a matter of U.S. law. Which takes us to the second point.
Proposition 2: Under U.S. law, works from most countries are protected under U.S. copyright.
The U.S. is a member of the Berne Convention and other multinational copyright agreements. As a result, signatory countries, such as the U.S., shall grant protection to works from the other Berne countries, which include most countries of the world.
These two propositions simplify the situation because there can exist many exceptions, conditions, details, and quirks, and they do not cover all possible situations. However, in common situations, these two propositions will hold true.
To learn more about copyright agreements and treaties between the U.S. and other countries, see:
- U.S. Copyright Office’s Circular 38a on "International Copyright Relations of the United States."
- Copyright Watch is a database of copyright statutes from different countries, with some commentary about treaty relations.
- A resource that we have found helpful is the "Copyright Treaties With The US" map created by Puneet Kishor under a CC0 License.
Many more resources are available on the Columbia "Links of Interest" page under "International Copyright", found here. For further information, see the following:
- American Library Association on International Copyright & Libraries
- American Society of International Law Guide to International Intellectual Property Law
- Brandeis University Libraries on International Copyright
- University of California Hastings College of the Law Library Guide on International Intellectual Property Law
- Copyright Guru Guide to International Copyright
- Cornell University Law Library International Intellectual Property Guide
- Harvard Law School Library International Intellectual Property Law Resources
- International Intellectual Property Institute
- Rights Direct (of the Copyright Clearance Center) International Copyright Basics
- University of Washington International Copyright Guide
Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC license from the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University, Kenneth D. Crews, director