A Brief History of Copyright

The copyright law we discuss here can be traced back to 1557 in England. At first, the “copy right” was used to censor printing by giving the Crown the ability to confiscate unapproved books. By 1695, however, the concept had come to imply a permanent monopoly over the publishing of maps and books — a monopoly that was jealously held by the Crown-chartered guild of printers and booksellers. That changed in 1710, when Parliament broke the monopoly by passing the Statute of Anne, which established fixed term limits for copyrights. Today the Statute of Anne is viewed as the first enactment of modern copyright.

Even before the U.S. Constitution was adopted, copyright was an important legal issue in the newly independent nation. The Articles of Confederation encouraged each State to address the issue, and in 1782, author and publisher Noah Webster lobbied the 13 legislatures to pass copyright laws. New York and New Jersey rejected him. But in January, 1783, Connecticut passed a copyright law, which was modeled upon the Statute of Anne.

The Constitution made copyright a federal matter by giving Congress the power to enact laws “… to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Although many of the Founding Fathers were distrustful of government-sanctioned monopolies, they agreed that the British experience with the Statute of Anne had, on balance, been beneficial to Britain. Congress’ first effort in this direction drew heavily on the earlier Connecticut law. It passed “The Copyright Act of 1790, An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Securing the Copies of Maps, Charts, and Books to the Authors and Proprietors of Such Copies.” The act gave American authors the right to print, reprint or publish their own work for a period of fourteen years, with an option to renew for another fourteen. The law created a monopoly as an incentive to authors, artists and scientists to create original works. This monopoly had a set time limit, after which the work entered the public domain in order to stimulate new creativity and the advancement of “science and the useful arts.”

The act was revised in 1831, 1870, 1909 and 1976. The 1976 law made one of the most important changes: It dropped the requirement that copyrights be registered in order to be valid. Instead, it held that copyright comes into existence at the moment an original work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” However, it still required that copyrights must be registered to receive the fullest protection of the law — a requirement that holds to this day.

In 1989 the U.S. joined the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. Under this treaty, photographers’ economic rights are similar everywhere in the developed world. Most importantly, the treaty has eliminated the requirement that all copies of a work carry a copyright notice.

The Convention also calls for the protection of creators’ “moral rights,” such as the right of paternity (the right to be acknowledged as the creator) and the right of integrity (the right to prevent destructive alteration to a work even after it has been sold). These rights, although an important part of European legal tradition, have become part of U.S. law only to a very limited extent. Nevertheless, with all commerce now becoming global, American photographers may find some benefits spilling over from European practices.

For more information on the history of copyrights, including precedent-setting cases:

United States Copyright Office: “A Brief History and Overview”

Select Bibliography:

Patterson, Lyman Ray and Stanley W. Lindberg. The Nature of Copyright: A Law of Users’ Rights. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Patterson, Lyman Ray. Copyright in Historical Perspective. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968.

Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Samuels, Edward. The Illustrated Story of Copyright. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity. New York: New York University Press, 2001.