Copyright and Jurisdiction

by John Holbo on May 2, 2010

Every six months or so I pose an amateur copyright puzzle, so here goes. Is there settled law, or substantial precedent, for dealing with the fact that copyright terms differ in different jurisdictions, as a result of which many works are in copyright in the US but public domain elsewhere, and vice versa? Project Gutenberg, for example, passes the legal burden onto its users. Many of its offerings bear notices to the effect: “Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook.” I take it this works, otherwise they would have been sued into the ground. But what if you want to publish a new paper edition of – oh, say, Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. It’s in the public domain in the US, so if you are a US publisher, go to. But Russell was a tough old bird and only passed on in 1970, so it will be decades before it’s in the clear in the UK – or Singapore (which has UK-style copyright). But if you sell your book on Amazon, someone might order it from the UK, or Singapore. And even if you only sell your book in the US – hell, it might be printed in Singapore. What about selling ebooks, as opposed to giving them away, Gutenberg-style? Is there any case of a non-US rights holder bringing successful suit against a US publisher for overstepping the geographical bounds of the US public domain (or, vice versa, for a US rights holder)? It seems as though, in this webbed-together world, there would have to be a settled way of dealing with such cases. But maybe there isn’t.