A Shifting Empire
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A Shifting Empire

100 Years of the Copyright Act 1911

Edited by Uma Suthersanen and Ysolde Gendreau

The 1911 Copyright Act, often termed the ‘Imperial Copyright Act’, changed the jurisprudential landscape in respect of copyright law, not only in the United Kingdom but also within the then Empire. This book offers a bird’s eye perspective of why and how the first global copyright law launched a new order, often termed the ‘common law copyright system’.
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Chapter 8: The Imperial Copyright Act 1911’s role in shaping South African copyright law

Tana Pistorius


The 1911 Imperial Copyright Act formed the basis of copyright law in the British Empire and subsequently in most Commonwealth countries. The 1911 Imperial Copyright Act has had a profound influence on the development of South African copyright law. Some of the principles established in case law under the 1911 Act are still valid today. It is most remarkable that current copyright policy is being influenced by the principles first enunciated in the Imperial Copyright Act. The Imperial Copyright Act applied in colonial territories and was the model for most of the early copyright legislation in Commonwealth countries.1 South Africa, like many other developing countries, inherited its intellectual property law system from its colonial rulers, namely Great Britain and Holland. The Batavian copyright tradition was first introduced to the Cape of Good Hope in 1803. The Cape of Good Hope was a colony of the Batavian Republic, a legal predecessor of the present-day Netherlands, between 1803 and 1806. The Batavian Republic adopted a copyright statute in 1803.2 As a consequence, copyright protection based on Roman-Dutch common law was introduced in 1803 in the Batavian Republic’s Cape of Good Hope colony. This common law copyright protection was also adopted by the Republic of the Orange Free State, the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) and Natal. Seventy years later the Cape of Good Hope adopted a copyright act3 and the ZAR and Natal followed suit later.4 The Republic of the Orange Free State retained copyright protection in terms of the common-law.

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