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|KeyWORDS: Vol. 1, Issue 2, MAR 08|
Like many things in U.S. jurisprudence, the concept of copyright law in the United States was borrowed from Merry Ol’ England (although we didn’t like taxation by England, we were fond of some of the English laws and parts of the legal system). In England in the late 15th century, the development of the printing press allowed the first large-scale reproduction of written materials.
The English monarchy found the widespread dissemination of ideas to the populace to be disturbing. In the middle of the 16th century two royal decrees were issued. The first in 1534 required printers to have a license and be approved by official censors. The second in 1557 moved even further and formed a monopoly on printing in the Stationer’s Company, a group of London printers who were expected to do the Crown’s bidding and in return had printing rights in perpetuity (as they say, forever is a very long time).i It’s good to be the Crown, or have a royal decree conferred by the Crown.
However, even for the Crown good things come to an end, and the monopoly conferred upon the Stationer’s Company expired in 1695 after 138 years (not quite forever, but a long time nonetheless). The Stationer’s Company lobbied Parliament to continue their monopoly, citing possible economic disaster and anarchy. In response, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Anne in 1710 (named for Queen Anne who reigned from 1702 to 1714). It was not what the Stationer’s Company had in mind. Rather than protecting printers, the Statute of Anne recognized and protected the rights of authors, and also put a time limit on this protection of 14 years.ii The Statute of Anne also required that, as part of copyright registration, nine copies of a new work be submitted to be sent to ‘official libraries’ in England and Scotlandiii. Yeah for libraries! The shift reflected in the Statute of Anne from protecting printers’ interests forever to protecting authors’ interests for a limited period of time set the stage for the development of modern-day copyright law, including in the United States.
The Continental Congress encouraged the colonies to pattern copyright statutes after the Statute of Anne, and after the Revolutionary War all but Delaware had some protection for authors. The drawback was the laws varied somewhat from colony to colony.iv If you think Copyright Law is complex now, imagine if it were slightly different in each state?!? So, the framers of the Constitution decided to include protection for authors and inventors in the Constitution for the new United States. How great is that? They saw a problem and then fixed it!
The framers knew a thing or two, and as a result we have Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution which gives Congress the power “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” As a result of this clause of the Constitution, we have federal copyright and patent protections in the United States. The first federal copyright law was the Copyright Act of 1790.
Next month: What’s been going on with copyright law since 1790.
LEAFFER, UNDERSTANDING COPYRIGHT 4 (3d ed. 1999).
|--Lisa Macklin, coordinator of IP rights office; and Heather Williams, copyright specialist and coordinator rights management|
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