The Bizarre History of ‘All Rights Reserved’

Copyright Symbol© YEAR NAME All Rights Reserved

It’s the almost ubiquitous format for a copyright notice and you’ll be hard pressed to find a large company that doesn’t follow it. CNN, Fox News, Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal join forces with sites like TechCrunch and Ars Technica in following that convention.

But the “All Rights Reserved” clause doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The natural status of copyright is one of all rights reserved. If one creates a work, other than the exemptions provided by the law itself, they reserve and hold all of the rights that copyright grants. This has been true in the United States since 1989 (PDF) and in many other countries well before that.

But while the copyright notice itself has stuck around out of habit and clarity, the “All Rights Reserved” portion of it seems doubly unnecessary, an unneeded clarification on an unneeded notice.

So why has “All Rights Reserved” stuck around? The answer lies in its history and in its future.

The History of All Rights Reserved

Buenos Aires ImageThough more recent laws did away with copyright formalities in the United States, the Copyright Act of 1909 did have such formality requirements. Those requirements, for example, are why Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain.

It was with those formalities in mind that the United States and 17 other nations from all over the western hemisphere, hammered out and signed the Buenos Aires Convention (PDF). The primary goal of this convention was to provide mutual recognition of copyrights across the nations but one of the issues that needed to be taken up was the problem of formalities.

To that end, article 3 said the following (emphasis mine):

The acknowledgement of a copyright obtained in one State, in conformity with its laws, shall produce its effects of full right, in all the other States, without the necessity of complying with any other formality, provided always there shall appear in the work a statement that indicates the reservation of the property right.

In short, under the convention, you had to indicate that you were reserving some property rightsin order to have full protection. In most nations under the treaty, that simply meant the statement “All Rights Reserved”.

Still, the implication was clear, without some some declaration that you were reserving a property right, your book, movie or other copyrighted work lapse into the public domain immediately after publication.

So, “All Rights Reserved” became part of the copyright lexicon, used in nearly everything that was published.

However, it didn’t take long for it to start to fall out of favor. Shortly after the signing of the Buenos Aires Convention, the countries involved in it started becoming signatories to the Berne Convention, a separate treaty that removes all formality requirements.

Starting with Brazil in 1922 and ending with Nicaragua in 2000, one by one the countries of the Buenos Aires Convention became Berne Convention signatories, eliminating the need for “All Rights Reserved” or any notice at all.

Still, up until 2000, there were parts of the world where, if you didn’t have the words “All Rights Reserved” (or some other statement of intent to protect your rights) on whatever you published, it was effectively in the public domain. While that pocket of the world might not have been very large, considering it only takes a few seconds to add the notice, most who were aware of the rule did so.

However, for the past 15 years, no countries have required “All Rights Reserved” to protect a work, so why is it still around?

The Present and Future of All Rights Reserved

Fifteen years later the phrase hangs on, even among people and companies who probably know that they can drop it. Even I, when I did my article about how to write a copyright notice, said you should include a “rights statement” as I called it.

The phrase “All Rights Reserved” has stuck around for the same reason as the copyright notice itself, it was a habit for many decades and it’s remained as such for the purpose of clarity. It takes so little time to add a notice that, if it prevents just one infringement, it’s probably worthwhile.

However, in 2015, “All Rights Reserved” has a potentially useful function. Considering that sites are using Creative Commons and others licenses that don’t reserve all rights, putting the notice on a site indicates clearly that this is not a site that allows free reuse of content, instead, that it continues to reserve and enforce all of its rights.

In short, it can provide clarification in an environment, like the Web where there are multiple licenses in play. This is especially true on sites like Flickr where some photos are public domain, others Creative Commons and still others under full copyright.

So, in a bizarre way, “All Rights Reserved” may not be going away but, instead, just now finding its usefulness. While it may seem to be redundant given the way copyright applies to new works, we’re at a time where there’s more confusion about licensing than ever, making a little extra clarity a very good thing.

One Additional Note

In addition to the Buenos Aires Convention, there is another potential use for “All Rights Reserved”. According to the Dutch site Ius Mentis, there is an exception in Dutch law known as the “Free Press Exception” that states the press in the country can copy, with attribution, from other news sources.

However, the use of “All Rights Reserved” trumps that exemption if its added to the original work.

Still, the law only applies in the Netherlands and only news, which can be copied from one news medium to another. Blogs, under the law, do not qualify as a news medium.

Bottom Line

In the end, we’ve just celebrated the 105th anniversary of the Buenos Aires Convention and while the “All Rights Reserved” is now legally obsolete (at least for the most part) it may be, for the first time, finally becoming less redundant.

We’re looking into a web where licensing is going to be complicated and nuanced and not licensing your work will be a conscious choice that many creators make. Sure, it’s the default choice under the law, but, with so many other options available, it might become less of something that can be assumed.

So there’s no shame in using “All Rights Reserved”. Even if it is legally obsolete, it still adds clarity and there are some who mistakenly believe that, without it, everything is free for the taking.

As with the notice itself, if it can stop just one infringement, it’s probably more than justified its addition.

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