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Does the Berne Convention automatically give copyright protection for new works that lack a copyright notice? For example, if I wrote and released a PDF book but forgot to include a copyright notice, do I still own the copyright to the book?

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  • Did you read the Berne convention? It's pretty clear on this point.
    – phoog
    Nov 20, 2021 at 20:17
  • @phoog What is the relevant section? It says some things about "formalities", but there is nothing in it that says "no copyright notice is necessary". I know next to nothing about law, so maybe that's why it's not obvious to me.
    – Flux
    Nov 21, 2021 at 3:54
  • My previous comment is the product of faulty recollection. The convention is silent on that point except by implication: it establishes that published works are protected without mentioning copyright notices one way or the other. The principle that copyright exists from the moment of creation is also not to be found in the convention, but the convention does allow for broader protections to be established in national law, which accounts for the existence of that principle.
    – phoog
    Nov 21, 2021 at 8:51

2 Answers 2

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Copyright notice is not relevant to having a Copyright. 1

Copyright starts to exist the moment a work is created. When the pen touches the paper the first time or the hammer strikes the block to become a statue, the work is started to be created. At that moment 2, copyright is gained as it becomes a work, usually defined in the national laws. Publication for sure grants all the rights according to the Berne Convention rules - which are the absolute minimum standards.

In the the Berne Convention's agreement is for example codified as 17 USC §102 and uses the moment of creation to start rights:

Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

Similarly, the German Urheberrechtsgesetz does list what can be copyrighted and that the copyright is with the author, and presumes the act of creation creates the copyright for nationals, and publication for non-nationals:

Section 1: The authors of works in the literary, scientific and artistic domain enjoy protection for their works in accordance with this Act.

Section 2: (1) Protected works in the literary, scientific and artistic domain include, in particular: [List of items]

Section 120: (1) German nationals shall enjoy copyright protection with respect to all of their works, whether or not they have been published and regardless of the place of publication. In the case of a work created by joint authors (Article 8), it shall be sufficient if one of the joint authors is a German national.

Section 121: (1) Foreign nationals shall enjoy copyright protection with respect to their works published in the territory to which this Law applies, unless the work or a translation of the work has been published outside that territory more than 30 days prior to its publication within that territory. Subject to the same limitation, foreign nationals shall enjoy protection with respect to their works published in the territory to which this Law applies in translation only.

There is no registration needed to have a copyright.

However in the US you need to register a copyright to seek specific damages in the courts.


1 - Currently. In the past it had been very relevant, but laws have changed since then.
2 - Technically shortly after the moment that the first touch is done and the work gains some originality, but there already can be an artistic expression in a single brushstroke of a minimalistic piece or a single stroke calligraphy - and the absolute minimum originality needed is rather low: while putting ARD in a line in a specific font is not protectable under copyright (it's a trademark), a 6-tune jingle is enough to be deemed a protected work in itself! Under German law, this is the Kleine Münze

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    Minor nitpick: although poetic "When the pen touches the paper the first time" is not quite correct. A "work" of say 2 or three words does not have enough originality and is not protectable. But as soon as a work-in-progress reaches the threshold to be protectable on paper (or on file, or caved in stone, or whatever) it is protected. And that threshold is pretty low. A single paragraph would be enough i think. Similarly one dot of colo at the start of a painting would not be protectable, but it wouldn't take much more. This difference will rarely if ever matter. Nov 19, 2021 at 16:33
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    @DavidSiegel While a good nitpick in general (especially for text), a simple picture of a single brushstroke is minimalistic art, and the L.H.O.O.Q. turned a print of the Mona Lisa into a separate work with one brushstroke. I expounded on that little nitpick, putting in a short remark to the Kleine Münze, the lowest threshold that is needed to be a work under German law
    – Trish
    Nov 19, 2021 at 17:04
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    True, but it is neither required, nor does it replace the need to register for some tomes of damages in the US.
    – Trish
    Nov 19, 2021 at 19:57
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    @Davislor That is not quite correct. For US law, se 17 USC 504 (c) (2). If the plaintiff elects statutory damages, and if the defendand proves that s/he is an "innocent infringer", then the court will reducxwe the statutory damages to a sum between $200, and $30,000, (probably at the lower end of that range) instead of between $750 and $30,000, or up to $150,000 for wilful infringement. Actual damages are not affected. But even an "innocent infringer" pays some damages. Registration is still needed to file suit. Nov 19, 2021 at 22:01
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    @AlexS Ask that as a proper question. But reread the text above: copyright is on the expression of works, which are not ideas.
    – Trish
    Nov 21, 2021 at 10:47
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Yes, although it was not always so

The answer by Trish is quite correct, in current law copyright is automatic when any protectable work is "fixed in tangible form" (which includes a computer file). This is true for all countries that adhere to the Berne Convention or to the TRIPS agreement (created by the World Trade Organization or WTO). Almost every country in the world adheres to one, or both, of these. All countries with significant publishing industries do.

In the US, a copyright notice was required until the effective date of the 1976 Copyright act (which was in 1978). Any work published in the US prior to that date without a notice lost copyright protection permanently.

Countries that adhered to the Universal Copyright Convention but not to the Berne Convention mostly required a copyright notice. But all such nations have now (2021) signed Berne, or TRIPS, or both.

A copyright notice still has some limited legal effect. In the US it largely defeats a claim of "innocent infringement" which reduces damages in a copyright infringement suit if the infringer proves to the satisfaction of the court that the infringer did not know, and had no reason to believe, that the work infringed was under copyright. Thus all or almost all commercial publishers include a copyright notice on all new publications, and many individual authors also do so.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Dale M
    Nov 22, 2021 at 8:15
  • @Supercat A 28-year copyright term, or indeed any fixed-length term, or any requirement for registration for protection (initial or renewal) would require renegotiation of the Berne convention, or that the US leave Berne, perhaps resurrecting the UCC. neither seems likely. In any case that is not what the law is now. Nov 22, 2021 at 15:29

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