The French Revolution: Universal Natural Rights
In 1793, in the turmoil following the French Revolution, the Chénier Act was passed in France. This was the first copyright-act of France. It was named after André Marie Chénier, a revolutionary and a famous poet of the early Romantic movement. Besides the right to sell publishing rights, it also assigned to the author a number of natural rights that were considered inalienable, and that thus could not be sold. They were the right to determine the first publishing date, the right to attribution, the right to prevent modifications to one's work, and the right to withdraw it from the market.
Regardless of the talk of natural rights, copyrights were by then still a national affair. Copyrights of foreign authors were not respected, and only a few specific bilateral treaties for protection were in power. In the Netherlands and in the areas that later would become Germany, there even were no official copyrights, and copying was controlled by publishers among themselves there. It was in this climate that France in 1852 unilaterally declared that it would protect the copyrights of all foreign authors. This was not as big a sacrifice for France as it seems, because at that time much more literature was exported from France than came back from the rest of the world. It was thus in 1878 that the famous French author Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables) still complained in his keynote speech at the Congrès Litéraire of the World Exhibition in Paris, that his books were illegally printed and sold in Belgium. He continued to rally for international copyrights for the rest of his life.
In 1886, one year after his death, and at his instigation, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic works was drafted by the Association Litéraire et Artistique Internationale. It required signatories to apply their own copyright laws also to works from other signing nations, and it required copyright to last for 50 years after the author's death, and for it be automatic, without requiring central registration of the work, or any other formality. In 1887 this convention was signed by France, Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, and four other European countries. It was preceded by 4 years by the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property of 1883, which protected patents and trademarks. The Berne Convention was revised in 1908, 1928, 1948, 1967 and 1971 to accommodate new media. With the passing of decades it was signed by over 160 countries, but only in 1989 by the United States.