History of U.S. Copyright Law: Early U.S. Copyright Law (Part II of IV)

Yesterday, we kicked off a series on the history of United States copyright law. The first article focused on a few copyright law facts. Today, we’ll take a look back at the birth of copyright protection in the United States.

Early U.S. Copyright Law

It’s easy to forget that prior to 1783, the United States was a largely agrarian society, and as such, most folks were generally more concerned about patents as opposed to copyrights. But even then, a copyright lobby existed (albeit much smaller than today’s iteration), who appealed to the Continental Congress’ using what could be described as reasoning by “intellectual property manifest destiny”. If you agreed to a dinner with an 18th century copyright law lobbyist, they’d undoubtedly tell you that “nothing is more properly a man’s own than the fruit of his study” and would most likely remind you that copyright would “encourage the spreading of genius.”

But despite copyright lobby efforts, the Continental Congress determined that they did not have the authority to issue copyright protection. Members did, however, encourage states to pass copyright laws, and suggested allowing for two, fourteen-year terms as a reasonable statute.

Copyright Act of 1790

By 1790, regulations were tweaked, and the U.S. government passed the first national copyright act. A near replica of the United Kingdom’s 1709 Statute of Anne, the U.S. copyright act of 1790 secured an author the exclusive right to publish and vend “maps, charts and books” for fourteen years; if the author of a work was still living after their 14-year term is up, renewal rights were granted for an additional 14-year term.

Between 1790 and 1799, approximately 13,000 titles were published in the US, but only 556 works were registered. (Look up how many copyrights are registered in the US today)

The 1790 act Expressly stated that it did not protect works of foreign authors and did not prohibit the pirating of foreign works – which, ultimately, had a negative effect on US-born writers, as it was much cheaper for publishers to print the works of foreign authors as opposed to paying royalties to us authors.

Only works that adhered to statutory formalities like C notices were protected – everything else went immediately into the public domain.

Copyright Act of 1831

Around 40 years after the first copyright law was ratified, the folks felt it was already time for a change. After all, people were living much longer, and two 14-year terms was deemed insufficient.

So, the terms were tweaked. The new copyright law allowed for an initial term of 28 years, with an option to renew for an additional 14-year term.

Fun Fact: Noah Webster – the dictionary impresario – was instrumental in pushing the 1831 copyright bill through.

Copyright Act 1909

When the 18th century turned into the 19th century, once again, United States copyright statutes needed a major overhaul. Technology was advancing at a rapid pace, people were living even longer still, and new modes of distribution and reproduction hit the scene (think the first IT revolution). And oddly enough, the introduction of the “piano roll” (that seemingly magical little contraption that allows pianos to play a song without a pianist) was really what ignited the need for adjustments to copyright law.

Lots of small changes were made in the 1909 Copyright Act, but perhaps the most important was the codification of a “compulsory mechanical license” that allowed anyone to make a “mechanical” reproduction of a musical composition without consent from the original composer, so long as the reproduction adhered to the license agreement. Essentially, the codification made musical “covers” possible.

Tomorrow, we’ll delve in to international copyright standards, which most American-, Canadian- and European Union-based businesses must follow.

Do you need a lawyer for a copyright issue? Yes? Contact the Kelly Law Firm. We have successfully litigated hundreds of copyright law-related cases and are here to help. Get in touch today!

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