Idle talk about the French “exception culturelle” is really getting on some people’s nerves. For instance, back in 2013 France was alone in insisting that films and audio-visual materials regulated by the free trade agreement between the US and the EU ought not to get the same treatment as other merchandise.
A sketch by French cartoonist Soulcié highlights the mutual lack of understanding: “What the hell is that shit?!”, asks an American while listening to a French song. “It’s Jean-Louis Aubert [… singer with the French rock band, Téléphone]. It’s like the Roquefort. You think it’s moisi … But it’s good moisi!” Sometimes it may be the case that France feels unjustifiably superior towards others when it comes to culture, nevertheless, you have to admit the country does a lot for its artists and others also benefit from this. Authors’ copyright is a shining example of this.
A Frenchman and none other than Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was the first to campaign for authors’ rights. On 3 July 1777 he invited about 30 colleagues to dine and join forces to resist the monopoly of actors who at that time decided whether a play was staged and, if successful, they were also the first to be paid. For instance, in the case of the Barber of Seville which Beaumarchais had not wanted to accept. He founded the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques – Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers – the very first society of authors whose work led to the first copyright law in history taking effect in 1791. Writers now had the option either to sell their works in France themselves or to have them sold, in which case they assigned their copyright partially or in full.
On this basis, during the 19th century Lamartine and Victor Hugo campaigned for authors’ copyright beyond France. Hugo founded the international literary society whose work was the foundation for the 1886 Berne Convention. This was the first international agreement for the protection of copyright signed by numerous European countries. In Paris in 1926 the Confédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Auteurs et Compositeurs (CISAC) was founded. This is an international umbrella organization for collective management companies and today involves over 120 countries representing three million copyright holders and publishers from the music, literary, film and visual arts sectors.
In 1957 writers in France were granted the material and intellectual rights to their works as part of the Law on Literary and Artistic Property. Since then the droit patrimonial or property right (similar to right of reproduction) regulates all material aspects and this right expires 70 years after the death of the author. Authors’ remuneration depends on the type of usage, that is, the type of reproduction or presentation of a work. Either this is directly based on the sale of a book, CD etc., or indirectly such as, for example, through private copies. E-books in this case give rise to numerous disputes and complications – read more about this later.
In addition there is the idealistic droit moral or moral rights that lend a moral dimension to the protection of intellectual property and are happily compared in France with the supposedly so liberal Anglo-Saxon copyright. While copyright protects the owner of the right of reproduction, such as the publisher for instance, the moral right is effective on behalf of the author who in this case is entitled to economic and ideal protection rights for his or her work.
France also plays a special role together with Germany in the campaign for authors’ rights in the digital age. Even if in 2015 e-books in France only accounted for about 3 % of book sales, from the outset the French supported regulation of the digital book market based on the traditional market model with the obligation for a net price system for e-books and reduced VAT of 5.5 %, as is the case for print books.
After years of wrangling in December 2014 the main players on the French book market were able to agree on revised contracts between writers and publishers that met the requirements of the digital age. The main dispute was about payment for writers. Since the technical and economic development of the digital market is unpredictable, the share of e-book sales paid to authors is only re-negotiated at regular intervals and publishers are obliged to provide authors with better and more frequent updates about numbers of sold e-books. And we wouldn’t be in France if mistrust were not already stirring against the EU Commission’s planned revision and standardization of European copyright to take into account the circumstances of the digital age.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright