Protecting Copyright and the “Encouragement of Learning”

Copyright Act of 1790, bill version. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Copyright Act of 1790, bill version, page 1. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Today’s post comes from Madeline Espeseth, intern in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC. 

In 1789, David Ramsay, author of History of the Revolution of South Carolina and History of the American Revolution, petitioned Congress to pass a law granting him the exclusive right of “vending and disposing” the books within the United States. This was the first time the issues associated with protecting writers’ rights was brought to Congress’s attention.

Congress received seven petitions relating to copyright legislation during that First Congress (1789–1791). On May 31, 1790, Congress enacted the first Federal copyright law, “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.”

The Copyright Act of 1790 put in place several important protections: copyright holders had control over their work for 14 years, with the opportunity to renew the copyright if they outlived the first term; persons who had not received permission to make copies of a protected work were to pay a fine of 50 cents for every page of work they had printed; only works copyrighted in the United States were protected; and only works of U.S. citizens could be copyrighted.

Copyright Act of 1790, bill version, page 1. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Copyright Act of 1790, bill version, page 2. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

British writers were extremely displeased with the provision that international works and writers were not protected under U.S. copyright law.

To express their frustration and “want of a law by which exclusive rights to their respective writings may be secured in the United States of America,” 56 prominent British authors, including Thomas Moore, Benjamin Disraeli, and Harriet Martineau, petitioned Senator Henry Clay, who presented the letter to Congress on February 2, 1837.

British authors were not entitled to royalties for their works printed in the United States, most of which were “appropriated by American Booksellers . . . and that the names of the Authors being retained, they may be made responsible for works which they no longer recognize as their own.”

Despite objections from international writers, protection did not come until Congress passed the International Copyright Act of 1891. For international authors to get a copyright in the United States, they first had to obtain one from their own government, and they had to be a citizen of “proclaimed country,” meaning the U.S. President had recognized it as a nation.

Letter from British authors to the Senate regarding copyright laws, and protection for international works, page 1, February 2, 1837. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Letter from British authors to the Senate regarding copyright laws, and protection for international works, page 1, February 2, 1837. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

The copyright law went under three major revisions in 1909, 1976, and 1998. These changes became necessary due to longer life expectancies; changing mediums that required protection, such as photographs and film; desire to be on par with international copyright laws; and the adoption of the “fair use” clause.

The most recent change in copyright law was the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, which also became known as the Sonny Bono Act or the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.

The act extended the length of copyright to be the life of the author plus 70 years. Previously, copyright protections lasted 50 years after the author died, which was 20 years shorter than copyright protection in European countries.

Most members of Congress thought the issue was not contentious, but it stirred up heated debates from copyright holders and prominent artists who wanted to increase the length of protection to be equivalent to foreign governments.

Letter from British authors to the Senate regarding copyright laws, and protection for international works, February 2, 1837. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Letter from British authors to the Senate regarding copyright laws, and protection for international works, February 2, 1837, signature page. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

The extended copyright protection guaranteed that the financial benefits of copyrighted work extended beyond the creator to also accrue to the copyright holders’ descendants.

Notable opposition came from librarians and archivists. They thought that extending the length of copyright would make it difficult for educators and researchers to use copyrighted works, which would hinder “the progress of science and useful arts.”

Despite some controversy sparked by current copyright law—such as how copyrighted works can be used for educational purposes and when unpublished works become a part of the public domain—the current copyright laws fulfill the same needs as the law passed by the First Congress: to protect author’s right to create and distribute materials, and encourage creativity and innovation.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

Letter from the estate of L Ron Hubbard to Senator Orrin G. Hatch regarding the Copyright Term Extension Act, May 11, 1995, page 1. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Letter from the estate of L. Ron Hubbard to Senator Orrin G. Hatch regarding the Copyright Term Extension Act, May 11, 1995, page 1. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Letter from the estate of L Ron Hubbard to Senator Orrin G. Hatch regarding the Copyright Term Extension Act, May 11, 1995, page 2. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Letter from the estate of L Ron Hubbard to Senator Orrin G. Hatch regarding the Copyright Term Extension Act, May 11, 1995, page 2. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

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