The United States became a member of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works effective March 1, 1989. The Berne Convention is the foremost multilateral copyright treaty in effect today; most of the economically significant countries in the world adhere to it. The most significant accomplishment of the Berne Convention was to eliminate the requirement of any “formalities” as a prerequisite to copyright protection. I’ve always thought of this as the “black tie optional” rule for copyright; works are protected by copyright in Berne member countries even if they are published without a copyright notice and if they are never registered for copyright protection. Before the U.S. signed onto Berne, works published without a copyright notice risked injection into the public domain. Today, works are protected from the moment they are fixed in a tangible medium of expression, without need for notice or registration.
Registration remains essential, however, for the enforcement of copyright in domestic works and for the availability of certain remedies. Under Section 412 of the Copyright Act, in order to be eligible to recover statutory damages for infringement and attorney’s fees, a copyright owner must have registered the work before the infringement began (or within three months of first publication of the work). Statutory damages are critical in cases where it is difficult to prove actual damages, and provide copyright owners with significant leverage in settlement negotiations. Thus, Section 412 acts as a powerful incentive for authors and owners to register their works promptly.
In Elsevier B.V. v. UnitedHealth Group, Inc., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3261 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 14, 2010), the Southern District of New York addressed the question whether, by virtue of the Supremacy Clause, the Berne Convention supersedes Section 412 with respect to unregistered foreign works. In other words, may plaintiffs suing to enforce copyrights in unregistered foreign works recover statutory damages and attorney’s fees? The answer hinged on whether Berne was a “self-executing” treaty under U.S. law – that is, a treaty which becomes law upon ratification. By contrast, Congress must affirmatively enact treaties which are not self-executing in order for their provisions to take effect under domestic law.
The court concluded that the Berne Convention was not self-executing. In adopting the Berne Convention Implementation Act, Congress explicitly stated that the treaty was “not self-executing under the Constitution and the laws of the United States”; that U.S. obligations under Berne “may be performed only pursuant to appropriate domestic law”; and that U.S. copyright law, as amended by the Implementation Act, satisfied U.S. obligations under Berne. Moreover, Article 36 of Berne itself states that the treaty is not self-executing:
“(1) Any country party to this Convention undertakes to adopt, in accordance with its constitution, the measures necessary to ensure the application of this convention.
(2) It is understood that, at the time a country becomes bound by this Convention, it will be in a position under its domestic law to give effect to the provisions of this Convention.”
Congress passed the Implementation Act specifically to revise U.S. law to comply with the Berne Convention. Though the Implementation Act amended other sections of the Copyright Act, it deliberately left Section 412 unchanged. For instance, Congress eliminated the requirement in Section 411(a) that foreign works be registered as a prerequisite to maintain an infringement action, finding the requirement to constitute a prohibited formality. On the other hand, Congress concluded that the statutory incentives for registration in Section 412 “are not preconditions for the ‘enjoyment and exercise’ of copyright” because “they do not condition the availability of all meaningful relief on registration, and therefore are not inconsistent with Berne.”
Because the Berne Convention was not self-executing, the court concluded that it could not preempt Section 412 of the Copyright Act. Owners of foreign works who might seek to enforce their copyrights in the United States would thus be well advised to register their works in order to maximize the tools and remedies available to them in the event of infringement.