Beginnings of Copyright Law in America

Protection of intellectual property (IP) under either a copyright or patent is an essential concept in the U.S. and throughout most of the world. It wasn’t always so.

The Statute of Anne passed by Parliament in 1710 granted copyright protection for those living in England. Unfortunately, the English law didn’t cover the IP of colonists living in North America. Few paid attention because Colonial America was an agrarian society with few writers/novelists and artists.

That all changed in 1783 when a committee in the Continental Congress reported to the legislative body “that nothing is more properly a man’s own than the fruit of his study, and that the protection and security of literary property would greatly tends to encourage genius and to promote useful discoveries.”

Under the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress had no power to enforce any sort of copyright legislation, but it felt that it was an important enough issue that it passed a resolution that encouraged the states to pass their own copyright laws. Seven of the 13 did and used the language of the Statute of Anne as the basis of their copyright laws.

The intentions of this move were good, but the result was a crazy quilt of copyright laws that were hard to enforce, i.e., what was covered in one state, wasn’t in another or vice versa.

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Virginia’s James Madison and South Carolina’s Charles Pickney helped get what is known as the “Copyright Clause” into the new U.S. Constitution. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 reads, “The Congress shall have power 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.”

This is also the clause that gave the Federal government the power to issue patents. The First U.S. Congress passed The Patent Act of 1790 and then the Copyright Act of 1790.

Unfortunately, the act covered only work created in the United States by U.S. citizens. For the record, this wasn’t changed until the International Copyright Act of 1891 was passed and is a story beyond the scope of this post.

There were flaws in the initial copyright legislation which led to an amendment in 1802 that included etchings and paintings. It also stipulated that the creator of the IP had to provide notice of his copyright. Then, in 1819, Congress gave Federal District Courts (then called circuit courts) the power to hear and rule on copyright and patent cases.

Since then, the original copyright act has been amended several times to keep up with changes in what is considered IP. Many of the items now covered were beyond what our Founding Fathers could imagine. One example is computer applications and operating systems, and another is television programs.

Image is the copyright symbol first authorized by the Copyright Act of 1909.

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