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History of Copyright

U. S. copyright law is an outgrowth of English common law. When the printing press was created in the fifteenth century, rights were at first granted to printers rather than to authors. The English common law protected printers’ intellectual property rights until 1710, when Parliament passed the Statute of Anne, which conferred upon authors the right to control reproduction of their works after they were published. The right lasted for 28 years, after which an author’s work was said to enter the public domain, meaning that anyone could print or distribute the work without obtaining the author’s permission or paying the author a royalty for the right to distribute it.

By the late eighteenth century, protecting intellectual property interests was considered an important means of advancing the public interest in both Great Britain and the United States. Granting a monopoly to the originator of a creative work provided incentive for authors and inventors to make things the public found valuable enough to buy for personal, commercial, and governmental uses. The Patent and Copyright Clause, contained in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U. S. Constitution, recognized the growing importance of protecting intellectual property interests. It empowers Congress to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Congress passed the first copyright statute in 1790 and has substantially revised it several times, most notably in 1831, 1870, 1909, 1976, 1998, and 2005. In 1831, musical compositions were granted copyright protection over objections made by opponents who claimed that such works did not fall within the Constitution’s definition of a “writing.” In 1870 Congress granted copyright protection to paintings, statues, and other works of fine art. In 1909 copyright owners were given the right to renew a copyright for 28 years beyond the initial 28-year term established by the first statute.

In 1976 Congress brought unpublished works within the ambit of federal copyright law. Prior to 1976, unpublished works were only afforded protection by state common law. The protection was perpetual in nature, meaning that authors could prevent others from copying their works during their lifetimes, and then pass this right on to their heirs. However, once an authorized person published a work, the common law copyright was extinguished, and the only protection afforded was by federal statute. The 1976 act abolished nearly every significant aspect of common law copyright, creating a unified system for both published and unpublished works (see 17 U.S.C. § 102[a]). The 1976 act also made U. S. copyright law conform more to international standards, particularly with regard to the duration of copyright protection and the formalities of copyright registration.

In 1998 Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to address a number of concerns relating to copyright infringement in the computer age. The DMCA limited the liability of Internet service providers (ISPs) for copyright infringement by Internet content providers, enabled Internet content providers to require immediate removal of infringing material, and made it illegal to circumvent encryption technologies designed to protect copyrighted works from unauthorized appropriation. Legal observers expect more intellectual property legislation to follow in the new millennium.

Congress enacted the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act in 2005 to address several concerns. This act incorporated several other acts that had been introduced in previous congressional sessions. One component, dubbed the Artists’ Rights and Theft Prevention Act of 2005, renders the unauthorized use of a video camera at a movie theater an offense punishable by a term of imprisonment. A second component, called the Family Movie Act of 2005, clarifies that those who alter movies to remove objectionable content are not liable to copyright owners. This statute protects companies that edit movies to remove or alter scenes on DVD movies such that families can watch the films without having to watch or listen to objectionable scenes.

Inside History of Copyright