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The History of American Copyright Law

American copyright law has its roots in England. Thanks to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, mass production of printed materials became feasible. England’s Licensing Act of 1662 established a register of licensed books and granted almost complete control of book publication to a group of printers known as the Stationer’s Company. This group also had the power of censorship.

In 1710, the Statute of Anne established rules governing author ownership of copyright, and fixed a set term limit for the copyright. This prevented booksellers from monopolizing copyrights, and provided a legitimate method of transferring copyright ownership. However, in order for a book to be published (and the author paid), the author had to sell the copyright to a bookseller. In other words, in order to be published, an author had to give up all rights of ownership and no longer had any control over the work.

In 1787, protection of intellectual property became part of the U.S. Constitution. According to Article I, Section 8, Clause 8: “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.”

The Copyright Act of 1790 was modeled after the Statute of Anne and granted authors the right to print, re-print, or publish their works for a period of 14 years, and to renew the copyright for another 14 years. This encouraged authors, artists, and scientists to create original works by granting the creators a monopoly. However, after the expiration of the copyright, the works became public domain. Major revisions to the Copyright Act of 1790 were implemented in 1831, 1870, 1909, and 1976.

If you want to know more about the history of American Copyright Law, here are three excellent web sites

History of Copyright Law

Assoc. of Research Libraries

Copyright Timeline: A History of Copyright in the United States

The Copyright Site

Timeline for American Copyright Laws

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Janet Woods, CONNECT
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