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The Universal Copyright Convention

André Kéréver
Former member of the Conseil d’État (France).

The Universal Copyright Convention (UCC) is an international instrument which was drawn up in 1952 under the auspices of UNESCO. If it were to be as universal as its title claims, the Convention not only had to recognize copyright as a human right but also to act as a kind of bridge between the world's different legal and social systems. As an attempt to devise a legal common denominator which would foster respect for the rights of creators and also encourage the international circulation of literary, scientific and artistic works, the UCC had a dual thrust.

Before the Second World War, steps had already been taken to remedy the paradoxical situation whereby the United States was cut off, legally speaking, from the countries of Europe and Asia which since 1886 had become signatories to the Berne Convention – the International Convention  for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

Under United States law authors could only be protected if they carried out certain administrative formalities such as registering their work with the US Copyright Office. This legislation had affinities with that relating to industrial property, which only recognized an inventor's rights if his or her invention had been registered. This requirement stood in the way of the United States' accession to the Berne Convention, which enshrines the principle that a work is protected purely by virtue of its creation.

There was thus no legal mechanism whereby a work originating in the United States could be protected in Japan or in the countries of Western Europe, or whereby a work originating in the latter countries could be protected in the United States except when the requirements of American law were observed.

The Universal Copyright Convention of 1952 provides a simple and ingenious solution to this problem. It prescribes that the formalities required by the national law of a contracting state shall be considered to be satisfied if all the copies of a work originating in another contracting state carry the symbol ©, accompanied by the name of the copyright owner and the year of first publication.

Ratified by the United States and by almost all the states parties to the Berne Convention, the UCC has successfully served its purpose as a pathway of communication between different legal systems, while also improving the international protection f intellectual works.

The creators of the UCC set themselves another goal in relation to the universality asserted by its title. They wished to anticipate and provide for the prospect following the Second World War of a considerable increase in the number of sovereign states as a consequence of decolonization. Legal norms for the protection of authors should be sufficiently flexible and open to accommodate states at different stages of development, or states belonging to different economic and social systems. These norms could thus not be as precise and restrictive as those of the Berne Convention, while nevertheless providing sufficient recognition of authors’ rights.

The 1952 Convention satisfies these two conditions. Its protective norms are expressed in the form of general principles which can be given different shades of interpretation depending on the specific identity of each state. The Convention limits the term of protection of copyright to twenty-five years after an author's death, thus permitting the accession of the USSR. But correlatively the Convention provides for the works of the citizens of each contracting state the same protection in other contracting states as it does for the works of authors belonging to those states. The prohibition of any discrimination in a given state between authors who are nationals of that state and foreign authors who may invoke the Convention is evidence of a universal concept of the protection of intellectual works.

The 1952 Convention created a legal structure which could accommodate the United States, the USSR, the industrially developed countries and the developing countries. It also influenced its predecessor, the Berne Convention. Fruitful cooperation led to the closer alignment of the two Conventions, which were revised in 1971. This revision gave concrete form to the twofold movement initiated in 1952 by the UCC: furtherance of the legal rights of creators and acknowledgement of the specific needs of developing countries.