A Very Brief History of Copyright Law

Once upon a time, books were written by hand. The process was lengthy, arduous and expensive as illustrated by the copyright symbol above in the Book of Kells style. There was no copyright protection.

The invention of the printing press in 16th century revolutionized the world.  Over the next century, the production of books increased exponentially.  In 1710, the Statute of Anne establishing author’s ownership of the right to copy his or her work for a limited time was enacted in Great Britain. The Statute of Anne was the law of the land in the colonies prior to the American Revolution.  

The U.S Constitution authorizes the legislature to:

“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”
(U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8)

In 1790 the first copyright law affording copyright protection to books, maps and charts was signed by President George Washington.

The expansion of work eligible for copyright protection has been driven by two forces: (1) technological developments that have made possible new forms of creative works; and (2) forms of expression which although in existence for ages came to be recognized as worthy of protection.

Copyright protection has been incrementally extended to historical and other prints, musical compositions, dramatic works, photographs and photographic negatives and works of art, public performance of music, motion pictures, recording and performing rights to nondramatic literary work, sound recordings, computer programs, architectural works, and vessel hulls.

The Digital Revolution has radically changed access to copyrighted material.  Music is streamed. Images that would have required laborious copying methods or careful photography can now be downloaded in an instant.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act with its take down provisions, proposed statutory changes, appropriation art, sampling and case law addressing the tension between copyright law and current technology will be discussed in upcoming posts.