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Disharmony in European Film Copyright

Sellors, C. Paul



British cinema sits in European cinema as comfortably as the UK sits in Europe. Although geographically European, the UK shares the common law with Commonwealth countries and the U.S. Continental Europe uses civil law. Both copyright law (common law) and author’s rights (civil law) treat culture as commercial property and share a romantic conception of authorship. However, UK and Continental conceptions of film, definitions of film authors, and priorities for film reflect divergent social values. Comparing UK and French intellectual property laws illustrates this divergence.

From the 1910s film critics and theorists worldwide have explored film’s artistic and moral qualities. Copyright law privileged film’s commercial value. The 1911 UK Act assigned photographic negatives to producers and dramatic works to key production staff, typically directors and writers. Effective commercial exploitation then required assignment of dramatic rights to producers, with contract law regulating employment relationships. France did not incorporate film into intellectual property law until 1957, but by the mid-1930s also treated films as entrepreneurial works.

1950s European laws diverged. In 1956 the UK classified films as entrepreneurial works, assigning all rights to producers. Unlike artistic works, films had no originality criterion. The UK Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988 [CDPA], as enacted, differed little in practice. In contrast, the 1957 French Act listed directors and authors of scenarios, adaptations, dialogue, and music as co-authors with moral and economic rights. Producers held neighbouring exploitation rights. British law favoured commerce, French law favoured authors.

A 1992 European Union copyright harmonisation directive required member states to list principal directors as authors or co-authors. Harmonisation did little to shift British priorities. The subsequent amendment to CDPA echoed the 1911 Act in structure and practice, leaving producers unfettered. Despite harmonisation, the values of British cinema remain aligned with those of common law countries rather than the Continent.


Sellors, C. P. (2015, November). Disharmony in European Film Copyright. Paper presented at European Cinemas, Intercultural Meetings: Aesthetics, Politics, Industry, History, University of Copenhagen

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (unpublished)
Conference Name European Cinemas, Intercultural Meetings: Aesthetics, Politics, Industry, History
Conference Location University of Copenhagen
Start Date Nov 13, 2015
End Date Nov 14, 2015
Deposit Date Mar 13, 2023