Intellectual property grew in importance throughout the 20th century. Legislative initiatives and jurisprudence were forced to keep pace with rapid technological developments, such as easier and cheaper ways of copying content (have you ever wondered how the photocopier, the VHS tape, CDs and now the internet have affected the protection of intellectual property rights?) At the time, in the face of pressing globalisation, the international dimension of intellectual property also became more important… and more laws were being drafted.
New and more specific intellectual property legislation
First, in the first half of the 20th century, new intellectual property statutes were adopted. The new legislation served, inter alia, to implement into national law the international instruments adopted in the 19th century with their most recent revisions. For example, the Copyright Act of 1911 enabled the United Kingdom to harmonise its legislation with the Berne Convention, last revised in Berlin in 1908.
The first half of the 20th century, unfortunately, also saw two world wars, the effects of which were felt throughout society; and intellectual property was no exception.
The French Intellectual Property Code, for example, extended the term of copyright protection for certain works created during the First and Second World Wars, or for authors who died fighting for France. The argument was that these authors had not been able to fully exploit their works during the conflicts. Consequently, books such as The Little Prince are to enjoy protection well beyond the ordinary period of 70 years after the author’s death. Although Antoine de Saint-Exupéry died in 1944, it is estimated – although there are still uncertainties – that his most famous work will be protected by copyright until sometime between 2033 and 2045.
Another example, but for different reasons, concerns Hitler’s own copyright. After the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, the State of Bavaria became the copyright holder of Hitler’s most infamous work, Mein Kampf. Copyright protection was maintained for 70 years after Hitler’s death and Bavaria refused any permission to reprint the work to prevent it from being used for hate speech.
Internationalisation efforts continue
The first half of the 20th century also saw the adoption of new international intellectual property instruments and the revision of existing ones. Among the first were the 1928 Hague Agreement Establishing an International System for the Registration of Industrial Designs, the 1957 Nice Agreement Establishing a Classification of Goods and Services for the Purposes of the Registration of Trademarks and Service Marks, and the 1961 Rome Convention Securing the Rights of Performers, Producers of Phonograms and Broadcasting Organisations.
Intellectual property and human rights
The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of a new era in politics and international relations. For the first time in history, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights provided that fundamental human rights should enjoy universal protection. Among others, intellectual property was recognised as a fundamental right in this area: Article 27 states that everyone has the right to “freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”.
A couple of years later, the European Convention on Human Rights was also published, according to which intellectual property deserves protection under property law. The European Court of Human Rights upholds this principle in its current legislation.
The legacy of the history of intellectual property in the first half of the 20th century
In the first half of the 20th century, intellectual property became increasingly important: not only were more sophisticated intellectual property laws adopted, but efforts to achieve greater international harmonisation also intensified. Moreover, IP gained a foothold in the human rights system. The legacy of all this is still very much with us today.