A History of United States Copyright

A History of United States Copyright: Even though this article doesn’t necessarily pertain directly to a Seller’s business, it’s still pertinent information to study how the United States’ copyright system came to be.

From Europe’s advances in the 15th century all the way to the US in the 1980’s and 90’s, the law has changed drastically in how it protects copyright.

Europe in the 15th Century

History of United States Copyright Johannes Gensfleich Gutenberg made history in 1436 through his invention of the movable typing machine.

At the time in Germany, the current system was arduous and complicated; wood blocks acting as stamps with metal letters that were arranged to create words. Gutenberg’s easier system of typing produced his first book, titled “the Gutenberg Bible”, which was manufactured into 180 copies.

When his invention was brought to light to the public, his creation spread through Europe (Italy, Spain, England, and Denmark).

Originally, the idea of mass production of literature was seen as for the lower class due to the fact that it is easily duplicated. [1] Since it was initially rejected by the upper crust of society, the lower classes took advantage of this new tool, and took to printed books. Once word subsequently spread, the printing press created a market for printed books as a commodity. Not only was it easier than the old system, but because of its swiftness, it served as a newer and more effective mechanism of spreading information.

Copyright law stemmed from the creating of the printing press, as the amount of copies that could be made of a literary work duplicated massively. Previously, authors depended on individuals to manually copy their literature [2], therefore creating a need for protection in this new mass-productive world.

Parliament and the Statute of Anne

Prior to this new time of mass production of literary works, the Stationer’s Company was solely responsible for eradicating illegitimate work. However, this ability was later revoked, and the Company attempted to use Congress as an avenue to receive rights to continue its job through a statute. Eventually, through much push and pull, the Stationer’s Company succeeded through Parliament’s institution of the Statute of Anne. This statute was put in place starting April 1710 and it was the first of its kind.

It argued “for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the times therein mentioned.” [3] In action, it awarded “book publishers with legal protection for 14 years upon enactment of the statute and legal protection for 21 years for books already in print.” [4] The Statute of Anne was a turning point in how law was seen; it opened the conversation up to the real rights of authors, and how the protection of their literary works was to be handled.

20th Century Copyright

There was an even bigger movement forwards in the 20th century. Then President Theodore Roosevelt signed The Copyright Act of 1909 on March 4th and was the first big change since the previous Statute of Anne. [5] The Act was implemented on July 1st of the same year and changed many previous laws. These changes include the institution of copyright notice, protection for unpublished works, foreign works, and an extended renewal period of 14 years.

The Copyright Act of 1912, AKA the Townsend Amendment, was the next legal action instituted, and it was an amendment of the previous. It added motion pictures as an entity protected by copyright. [6] The amendment added two new categories to section 5 of the 1909 Copyright Act entitled “motion picture photoplays” and “motion pictures other than photoplays.” [7]  This amendment was a direct response to the ever-changing technological space, particularly in entertainment, that was evolving during this time period.

Another amendment that was instituted during the 20th century was the Sound Recording Amendment of 1971 which was created on October 15th and put into action on February 15th, 1972. The point of this amendment was to guard sound recordings. [8] This amendment therefore created a direct method of protecting this form of copyright, whereas previously, it was only protected through common law (state basis) or through criminal law.

On July 7, 1961, The Copyright Act of 1976 was instituted and was a revision of the 1909 Copyright Act, as another update due to technological advances. Commercial TV and radio stations were booming, and there needed to be a way to protect for the duplication of these materials.

The Berne Implementation Act of 1988 was related to the previous Berne Convention from the 1800’s. The Berne Convention, however, was not adopted by the United States at the time and was a murky way of protecting copyright. The US therefore enacted the Chace Act in 1891 in order to bridge this gap, providing foreign authors with protection. This did not solve the complete issue, however, as the manufacturing clause of the Berne Union stated that the production of literature in part had to be done in the US or Canada. The result was the Berne Implementation Act which was formally instituted by then President Ronald Reagan on October 31st, 1988. This process was deemed easier than before, as it regulated filing requirements and expanded to 20 new nations. [9]


History of United States Copyright
[1] The invention and History of the Printing Press, PsPrint, https://www.psprint.com/resources/printing-press/ (last visited June 4, 2018).
[2] Thomas F. Cotter, Gutenberg’s Legacy: Copyright, Censorship, and Religious Pluralism, 91 Cal L. Rev 323, 325-26 (2003).
[3] Statute of Anne, 1710, 8 Ann., c. (Eng.)
[4] Jeremy Norman, The Statue of Anne: The First Copyright Statute (1709), HistoryofInformation.com, http://www.historyofinformation.com/expanded.php?id=3389 (last updated June 3, 2018).
[5] Copyright Act of 1909, Revolvy, https://www.revolvy.com/topic/Copyright%20Act%20of%201909.
[6] United States Copyright Law, History of Copyright What are Copyrights? HTTP://HISTORYOFCOPYRIGHT.ORG/PB/WP_FE548A29/WP_FE548A29.HTML .
[7] William F. Patry, Copyright law and Practice 61 (1994).
[8] Patry, supra note 12, at 73.
[9] United States Copyright Law, supra note 11.

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