Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Using Posters from Cultural Revolution

Dear Rich: My non-profit organization is developing a study guide that centers around the Cultural Revolution. We plan to use a number of propaganda posters from China in the 1960s in the guide. We're having a hard time tracking down the rightful owners of the posters to secure permission and we're wondering if it is because there are laws putting propaganda in the public domain. What do you know about propaganda and copyright? Also, what can you tell me about the Berne Convention and its affect on copyright? Aside from reading RIAA press releases, the Dear RIch Staff doesn't know much about copyright and propaganda. We assume your question is whether Chinese government-authorized posters created in the 1960s are protected by copyright in the U.S. The short answer is "probably not." One reason for this wishy-washy response is that for a period of two decades (from 1957 through 1978), China effectively had no copyright system. Commencing in 1979 and through 1990, the country adopted various copyright regulations and in 1991 China's current copyright law went into effect. 
Current Chinese Law
Under the current Chinese law there is no exemption for government-produced posters although Article 5 puts certain government documents into the public domain. Article 59 of the Chinese law grants some retroactive protection to pre-1991 works but it is unclear whether this would provide protection for the posters. In any case. it's difficult to imagine the enforcement of copyright in Cultural Revolution posters -- whether produced by the government or independently by local Chinese artists -- as evidenced by the fact that none of the many books or websites reproducing these posters acknowledge copyright, or reflect any permissions for their use (check the Search Inside feature at Amazon). On that basis, you should not expect your study guide to be the subject of a dispute. ) We are also informed and believe (that's legalese for "we're pretty sure") that at the time these posters were created, it was considered "counterrevolutionary" for a contributing artist to make copyright claims.
What about Berne?
In answer to your second, question, the Berne Convention is an international treaty that standardizes copyright protection among the 100 member countries. Basically, any country that signs the treaty agrees to provide the same treatment to  authors from other treaty countries as it does to authors in its own country.