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The French copyright law was based on the "right of the author" instead of on "copyright" and its philosophy and terminology are different from those used in copyright law in common law jurisdictions. The French copyright law has been very influential in the development of copyright laws in other civil law jurisdictions, and in the development of international copyright law such as the Berne Convention. French copyright law implements European copyright directives. Two distinct sets of rights are defined in the French copyright law: Proprietary rights and Moral rights. On 7 March 2006, the National Assembly passed the DADVSI Act which implemented the 2001 European Union Copyright directive.
The DADVSI Act makes peer-to-peer sharing of copyrighted works an offense. The concept of "right of the author," rather than the author, the privilege concerned the publication of his works, finds its roots in the practice of printing patents and royal privileges, which first appeared in the 16th century and became common in the 17th century.
In 1761, a court decision granted to Jean de La Fontaine's granddaughters the right of ownership of La Fontaine's work, legitimized by the right of inheritance. In 1777, two other court decisions limited the publisher's right, which was restricted to the life-time of the author.
In 1997, a court decision outlawed the publication on the Internet of Raymond Queneau's Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, an interactive poem or sort of machine to produce poems. The court decided that the son of Queneau and the Gallimard editions possessed an exclusive and moral right on this poem, thus outlawing any publication of it on the Internet and possibility for the reader to play Queneau's interactive game of poem construction.
There must be a human intellectual contribution to the work. The criterion for protection
of a work under French copyright law is that it be an uvre d'esprit, a work of the
mind (Art. L112-1).
The legal position regarding copyright protection of computer programs was resolved by the import of the 1991 EU Directive into French law. Computer programs and any associated preparatory works qualify for copyright protection in France as in other European Union jurisdictions. Databases are protected by a related sui generis right.
The term "author" is used to designate the original creator(s) of any type of protected work, e.g., the artist, photographer, director, architect, etc. Where the author cannot be identified, e.g., for anonymous works and collective works, the copyright is exercised by the original publisher.
The proprietary rights of the author allow him or her to exploit the work for financial gain. The author has the right to authorize the reproduction of the work (droit de reproduction) and to allow its public performance (droit de représentation): he or she may also prevent the reproduction or public performance.
The general rule is that the proprietary rights of the author last for seventy (70) years after his or her death (Art. L123-1), or for one hundred (100) years after the author's death if the author is declared to have died on active service (Mort pour la France) (Art. L123-10). The author is deemed to have died on 31 December of the year of death. The periods of World War I and World War II were not taken into account for the determination of the expiry date of proprietary rights (Arts. L123-8 & L123-9). These exceptions applied to works published before and during the wars, and must be added whatever the date of the author's death.
French copyright law treats a protected work as an extension of the personality of the
author which is protected by a certain number of moral rights. In general, the author has
the right to "the respect of his name, of his status as author, and of his work"
(Art. L121-1). The following rights are usually recognised:
right of publication: the author is the sole judge as to when the work may be first made available to the public (Art. L121-2).
right of attribution: the author has the right to insist that his name and his authorship are clearly stated.
right to the respect of the work: the author can prevent any modification to the work.
right of withdrawal: the author can prevent further reproduction, distribution or representation in return for compensation paid to the distributor of the work for the damage done to him (Art. L121-4).
Right to protection of honour and reputation. The moral rights of the author may conflict with the property rights of the owner of the work, for example an architect who tries to prevent modifications to a building he designed. Such conflicts are resolved on a case by case basis, and recent jurisprudence has led to a weakening of certain moral rights, notably the right to the respect of the work.
The moral rights are inalienable, perpetual and inviolable. They pass to the author's heirs or executor on the author's death, but may not be otherwise transferred or sold under any circumstances, by either the author or his legal successors. Any agreement to waive an author's moral rights is null and void, although the author cannot be forced to protect his work.
A work enters the public domain (domaine public) once the proprietary rights over it have expired. It may then be used without charge, so long as the moral rights of the author are respected. Notably, the name of the author and the original title of the work must be cited.