Cinema Law: Does an International Copyright Protect My Film in Foreign Countries?

Q: I’m a foreign national and I would like to send my film to festivals inside and outside the United States.

Do I have to register my movie with the U.S. Copyright Office or other international offices? For example, Thailand’s copyright office is a bureaucratic organization with lots of red tape that doesn’t support English registrations.

First things first. In the U.S., you don’t have to register your copyrights at all. It’s commonly believed that registration is required in order for copyright law to kick in and protect your work, but it’s not true. Once you’ve created the work, it is automatically granted copyright protection. Registration provides certain benefits—like statutory damages—which makes it a good idea, though. You also never know when you’ll have to defend your work, and if you want to sue for copyright infringement, registration is necessary before you can file your papers in court.

And luckily for you, if you want to screen your film in the U.S., you’ll be happy to know that foreign copyrights are recognized here, granted the same rights as works of art created domestically. So you don’t have to register your film to be given copyright protection under U.S. law, but if you wanted to register it, you are allowed to. The Copyright Office explicitly permits works of foreign origin to be registered in the U.S. as long as they are unpublished (for example, if you haven’t screened your film publicly).

Outside the U.S., however, is where things get difficult. See, international copyright law doesn’t exist as a single monolithic area of practice. There’s no such thing as an “international copyright” that covers you everywhere you go. Copyright laws are determined country by country, so works created in one place may not enjoy the same rights and protections in others. That’s how a work of art can be in the public domain in France but still be protected under copyright law in the U.S.

In order to normalize copyright protections across international borders, several treaties were enacted, the most prominent of which are the Berne Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC). Very generally, these two treaties recognize artists’ copyrights and provide minimum protections regardless of which country the work originates from or which country the infringement takes place. The Berne Convention in particular allows artists to use the copyright laws of whichever country the infringement took place in, even if the work originated somewhere else. So if your film originated in Germany but was infringed in Lebanon, Lebanon would be required to treat your film under its copyright laws the same way it would treat a film of Lebanese origin.

There are two hiccups with these treaties, however. First, they only apply to member countries. Most countries, including the U.S., have joined one or both. But if your work is infringed in say Iran or Somalia, neither of which are members, there’s pretty much nothing you can do to fight infringement. Second, even if your film is infringed in a member country, you’re stuck filing your lawsuit in your home country unless you’re financially able to defend it abroad. And if that’s the case, the likelihood of your lawsuit actually being effective is slim to nil. A court needs jurisdiction over the offending party, after all, and a court in France is going to have a tough time enforcing financial or injunctive relief against an infringer in Afghanistan. Sadly, the relevant factor here isn’t your rights under the law, but whether you can afford to defend your rights at all.

In your particular case, there are two things you need to do. First, look up which countries the festivals you’re submitting to take place in and find out whether they’re members of the Berne Convention and/or the UCC. Second, look into their copyright laws and find out if registration of the copyright is required or even possible. Many Western countries have copyright laws similar to that of the U.S., which means registration isn’t required in order to have copyright protection.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an overarching entity, like the U.N., where you can register your copyright. You have to do it country by country. But at least once you’ve done your research, you can make a decision as to whether registering your film’s copyright country by country is a worthwhile activity.

And make sure you actually get accepted into a festival before starting down this road. The last thing you want is to spend your limited time learning Thai copyright law if it’s not going to actually be useful to you! MM

Gregory R. Kanaan, Esq. is a Boston-based attorney representing artists, filmmakers and designers in Massachusetts and New York. His practice focuses on entertainment and art law, as well as intellectual property issues. He has resolved disputes involving copyrights, publicity rights, trademarks, and contractual disputes for a wide range of independent filmmakers and design professionals. Prior to becoming an attorney, Mr. Kanaan was a television producer, creating documentaries and series for The Discovery Channel, Court TV, TLC, and A&E, among others. When not practicing law, Mr. Kanaan writes for his blog, The [Legal] Artist, which aims to educate creative professionals on the legal issues that affect them most. 

The answers to legal questions provided here are for general education and information purposes only, and are not legal advice or legal opinions. The information provided in this article is not intended to create a lawyer-client relationship between Mr. Kanaan and a reader.

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