Early Copyright Law

The first copyright law was passed in the British Parliament in 1709 and went into effect the following year. The Statute of Anne granted authors the right to control the printing and distribution of their works for fourteen years. Rights depended on registration and could be renewed for another fourteen years, if the author was still alive.

The argument for copyright was to protect authors’ investment and property—and therefore to encourage more creativity. Authors, of course, had no way of exercising their right other than to sell it to a printer, so printers benefited from the law at least as much as authors. The founding fathers of the United States had a similar interest in promoting creativity and innovation, and with little debate the power to grant patents and copyrights was added to the Constitution.

The first U.S. copyright law was passed in 1790. It was modeled directly on the Statute of Anne with a requirement that copyrights be registered. For the next century two separate debates were had about copyright. In both Britain and America, statesmen debated the appropriate length of protection for copyright. Meanwhile members of the creative and publishing communities internationally debated how best to offer copyright protection globally.


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