• Cassandra L. Wilkinson

Important Dates in U.S. Copyright History


To better understand existing U.S. copyright laws, a review of U.S. copyright history may be helpful. This article will present some of the important dates in U.S. copyright history.
The Statute of Anne was enacted on April 10, 1710 and was the basis for British and American copyright law.1 The Statute of Anne stated “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies….”2 This “statute granted to the author and his assigns an original term of 14 years from the date of publication plus a second term of 14 years should the author be living at the expiration of the first term.”3

On January of 1783, after United States declared its independence from Brittan in 1776, Connecticut passed the first state copyright law.4 While Noah Webster has been credited with being instrumental in passing this copyright law, it was John Ledyard, author of A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, who was successful in getting the Connecticut General Assembly to pass the first general copyright protection, which set the precedent for other colonies to enact similar laws. This law provided for a copyright to be issued to the author of the works for 14 years with the ability to renew the copyright once.5
On June 21, 1788, the U.S. Constitution was ratified with Article I, Section 8 that gives Congress the power “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.”6 This is the provision under which copyright protections were established.
On May 31, 1790, the Congress enacted the first federal copyright law under the powers provided by the U.S. Constitution.7 The Copyright Act of 1790 stated “An Act for the encouragement of learning, by securing the copies of maps, Charts, And books, to the authors and proprietors of such copies, during the times therein mentioned.”8 This law provided a term of copyright protection for 14 years with the right to renew copyright protection another 14 years.9
On April 30, 1802, Congress amended the Copyright Act of 1790 adding a notice requirement to be placed on every copy of a work distributed to the public and extending copyright to the art of designing, engraving, and etching historical prints and other print or prints.10
On February 3, 1831, Congress enacted the Copyright Act of 1831 as the first major revision of copyright law.11 The Copyright Act of 1831 provided for: (1) increasing the copyright term to 28 years with the right to renew copyright protection another 14 years; (2) the granting of renewal rights to widows and children of deceased authors; and (3) the addition of musical compositions to the subject matter explicitly recognized by the statute as being protected by copyright law.12
On August 18, 1856, Congress amended the Copyright Act of 1831 to extend copyright protection to dramatic compositions including the right of public performances being protected by copyright law.13
On March 3, 1865, Congress further amended the Copyright Act of 1831 to provide copyright protection to photographs and photographic negatives.14
On July 8, 1870, Congress enacted the Copyright Act of 1870 as the second major revision of copyright law. This law required registration and deposit of copyright material with the Library of Congress and extended copyright protection to works of art.15
On September 9, 1886, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (also known as Berne Convention) was the first multilateral international copyright treaty. While this treaty was signed by several countries, the United States was not one of them.16
On March 4, 1891, Congress enacted the International Copyright Act of 1891. This act provided copyright protection in the United States to individuals who were not U. S. citizens.17
On January 6, 1897, Congress enacted the U.S. Copyright Amendment Act of 1897 and protected against unauthorized public performance of copyrighted music.18
On February 19, 1897, the Copyright Office was established as a separate department with the Library of Congress.19
On March 4, 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Copyright Act of 1909 which is the third major revision of copyright law.20 This Act became effective on July 1, 1909. The Act provided that the copyright for published works were secure from the date of first publication with proper copyright notice on works; provided copyright protection for unpublished works like exhibitions, performance and oral deliveries; extended renewal of copyright protection from 14 years to 28 years to allow for a maximum for 56 years of protection; and provided copyright protection for mechanical recording rights for musical compositions.21
On August 12, 1912, Congress enacted the U.S. Copyright Amendment Act of 1912. This Act provided copyright protection for motion pictures.22
On July 30, 1947, Copyright law was added to the U.S. Code as Title 17.23
On January 1, 1953, Congress enacted amendment to Title 17 to allow recording and performing rights for nondramatic literary works.24
On November 5, 1954, United States signed the Universal Copyright Convention Treaty.25 The treaty created no new copyright laws, but the treaty did harmonize existing national copyright laws and simplified reciprocal national copyright treatment basis.26
On October 15, 1971, Congress enacted amendment to Title 17.27 This amendment provided copyright protection to sound recordings fixed and published on or after February 15, 1972.28
On October 19, 1976, Copyright Act of 1976 was signed by President Gerald Ford and was the fourth major revision of copyright law.29 This Act became effective on January 1, 1978. This Act extended copyright protection to both unpublished and published works once they were fixed in a tangible form. Also, for works created on or after January 1, 1978 the copyright term was the life of the author plus 50 years.30
On December 12, 1980, Congress enacted an amendment to the Copyright Act of 1976 to provide copyright protection to computer programs.31
On March 1, 1989, United States became a member of the Berne Convention, which provides for harmonizing existing national copyright laws.32
On December 1, 1990, President Bush signed into law the Computer Software Rental Amendments Act. This Act amendment the Copyright Act of 1976 to prohibit the rental, lease, or lending of a computer program for direct or indirect commercial gain unless authorized by the owner of copyright in the program.33
Also on December 1, 1990, Congress enacted an amendment to the Copyright Act of 1976 to provide copyright protection to Architectural works.34
On June 26, 1992, Congress enacted an amendment to the Copyright Act of 1976 to make renewal of works copyrighted between January 1, 1694 and December 31, 1977 automatic and renewal registration optional.35
On November 1, 1995, Congress enacted an amendment to the Copyright Act of 1976 to create “a public performance right in sound recordings applicable to digital transmissions.”36
On October 27, 1998, Congress enacted an amendment to the Copyright Act of 1976 that is also known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.37 The summary of the changes made by this Act to copyright laws are as follows:
(Sec. 102) Prohibits the annulment or limitation of rights or remedies under State laws with respect to sound recordings fixed before February 15, 1972, until February 15, 2067 (currently, 2047).
Extends the duration of copyright in a work created on or after January 1, 1978, to the life of the author and 70 (currently, 50) years after the author's death. Makes the same extension with regard to joint works created on or after such date.
Extends the duration of copyright in anonymous or pseudonymous works or works made for hire on or after such date to 95 (currently, 75) years from the year of the first publication, or 120 (currently, 100) years from the year of creation, whichever expires first. Makes conforming extensions with respect to provisions regarding the presumption of an author's death.
Extends from December 31, 2027, to December 31, 2047, the duration of copyright in works published on or before December 31, 2002.
Extends the duration of copyrights in their renewal term at the time of the effective date of this Act to 95 years from the date such copyrights were originally secured.
Permits an author or owner of a termination right, subject to certain conditions, to terminate a transfer or license of a renewal (executed before January 1, 1978) of a copyright (other than a work made for hire) subsisting in its renewal term on the effective date of this Act, for which the termination right has not been exercised, and has expired, by such date. Allows termination of a transfer or license grant at any time during the five years beginning at the end of 75 years from the date the copyright was originally secured.
(Sec. 103) Revises provisions regarding termination of certain transfers and licenses granted by the author or covering extended renewal terms to provide that if the author's widow, widower, children, and grandchildren are not living, the author's executor, administrator, personal representative, or trustee shall own the author's entire termination interest.
(Sec. 104) Allows, during the last 20 years of any term of copyright of a published work, a library or archives to reproduce, distribute, display, or perform in facsimile or digital form a copy or phonorecord of such work for purposes of preservation, scholarship, or research after determining that none of the following conditions apply: (1) the work is subject to normal commercial exploitation; (2) a copy or phonorecord of the work can be obtained at a reasonable price; or (3) the copyright owner or its agent provides notice that either of such conditions applies. Provides that such exemption does not apply to any subsequent uses by users other than such library or archives.
(Sec. 105) Expresses the sense of the Congress that owners of copyrights for audiovisual works for which the term of copyright protection is extended by the amendments made by this title, and the screenwriters, directors, and performers of those audiovisual works, should negotiate in good faith in an effort to reach a voluntary agreement or voluntary agreements regarding the establishment of a fund or other mechanism for the amount of remuneration to be divided among the parties for the exploitation of those audiovisual works.38
The above changes to copyright duration are still in effect today and this amendment was the last major change to copyright laws made by Congress.
Over time, copyright duration has increased from 14 years to the life of the author plus 70 years or 95/120 years and now protects many different types of works. As we have seen, copyright law has undergone vast changes over the last 300 years. It will be interesting to see what new changes will occur over the next 300 years.
1. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 2. http://www.copyrighthistory.com/anne/html. 3. Copyright Law Revision, Studies Prepared For The Subcommittee On Patent, Trademark and Copyrights Of The Committee On The Judiciary, United States Senate, Eighty-Sixth Congress, Second Session, Pursuant To Senate Resolution 240, Study 30. Duration of Copyright, James J. Guinan, Jr., January 1957, at http://www.copyright.gov/history/studies/study30.pdf 4. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 5. http://connecticuthistory.org/first-general-copyright-law-today-in-history/ 6. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html 7. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 8. U.S. Copyright Office Website - http://copyright.gov/history/1790act.pdf 9. U.S. Copyright Office Website - http://copyright.gov/history/1790act.pdf 10. Copyright Enactments, Laws Passed In The United States Since 1783 Relating to Copyrights, Copyright Office Bulletin No. 3 (Revised) , 1973, pages 24 to 26 at http://copyright.gov/history/Copyright_Enactments_1783-1973.pdf 11. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 12. Copyright Enactments, Laws Passed In The United States Since 1783 Relating to Copyrights, Copyright Office Bulletin No. 3 (Revised) , 1973, pages 27 to 31 at http://copyright.gov/history/Copyright_Enactments_1783-1973.pdf 13. Copyright Enactments, Laws Passed In The United States Since 1783 Relating to Copyrights, Copyright Office Bulletin No. 3 (Revised) , 1973, page 33 at http://copyright.gov/history/Copyright_Enactments_1783-1973.pdf 14. Copyright Enactments, Laws Passed In The United States Since 1783 Relating to Copyrights, Copyright Office Bulletin No. 3 (Revised) , 1973, pages 34 to 35 at http://copyright.gov/history/Copyright_Enactments_1783-1973.pdf 15. Copyright Enactments, Laws Passed In The United States Since 1783 Relating to Copyrights, Copyright Office Bulletin No. 3 (Revised) , 1973, pages 36 to 41 at http://copyright.gov/history/Copyright_Enactments_1783-1973.pdf 16. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 17. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 18. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 19. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 20. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 21. http://government-programs.laws.com/copyright-act-of-1909 22. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 23. Copyright Enactments, Laws Passed In The United States Since 1783 Relating to Copyrights, Copyright Office Bulletin No. 3 (Revised) , 1973, pages 102 to 121 at http://copyright.gov/history/Copyright_Enactments_1783-1973.pdf 24. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 25. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 26. Joseph S. Dubin, The Universal Copyright Convention, 42 Cal. L. Rev. 89 (1954). Available at: http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/californialawreview/vol42/iss1/8 and http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3372&context=californialawreview 27. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-85/pdf/STATUTE-85-Pg391.pdf 28. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 29. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 30. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 31. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 32. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 33. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 34. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 35. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 36. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 37. U.S. Copyright Office Website – http://copyright.gov/about/timeline.html 38. https://www.congress.gov/bill/105th-congress/senate-bill/505

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