Copyright is an odd beast of the law; an incorporeal right - something you can't touch or feel. In the history of copyright, it was taken to be a property right but now, it is more properly described as statutory protection.

Copyright law is enforceable in the country that approves it. Every culturally advanced nation had, by 1900, a copyright law or something similar to promote new writings and protect authors. But the copyright law ended at the border of their country.

If Bach wrote a sonata, he might of had copyright in his home country, but no law could stop a pilferer in, say, Turkey or Russia from reissuing the sheet music and selling it, with no monies going back to Bach.

This problem was pronounced by the mid-1800s and well-recognized as a deterrent to intellectual creativity. Some countries began the process of wrapping up treaties between themselves to enforce copyright, thus enlarging the scope of copyright protection for their authors. This piecemeal solution, though, created a puzzle of law.

Earth copyrightThe real solution lay in an international treaty that set minimal standards for copyright protection and to which nations could subscribe and which, in theory, if it could wrap itself around the globe and be endorsed by all or most nations, could arrest and stop copyright theft.

In 1886, an initial draft was published in Berne, Switzerland. Known as the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, it was promptly signed by most major European countries, but that was it. It was only gradually that more came on board. The signatories now include the United States (1989), Canada and China.

The beauty of the Berne Convention is the use of national treatment and it cannot be based on any formality. Halsbury's Laws of England, in Title 9(2), Copyright:

"The basis of the (Berne) Convention was that all member states should confer an agreed standard of protection, and that any work first published in a Convention country should enjoy international protection in all states of the union."

An innovation of the Berne Convention was to extend copyright protection to unpublished works, and remove the requirement for formal registration. In countries that signed the Berne Convention, an individual (or the organization they worked for) could assert copyright of any work they produce as soon as it was recorded in some way.

Another was the use of the copyright symbol, the letter "c" surrounded by a circle, as in ©.

The Berne Convention, as it is known, has been revised in 1896, 1908, 1914, 1928, 1948, 1967 and 1971. It is now administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), based in Geneva, Switzerland which has since added a side-treaty dealing mostly with computer programs (the WIPO Copyright Treaty of 1996).