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U.S. Constitution
1.17.03
Politics and Economy:
Copyright in America
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Copyright law protects the expression of an idea. Almost any expression can be copyrighted, and copyright attaches as soon as the expression is fixed in some tangible form. As our society has become more dependent on information as the source of American jobs, there has been more emphasis on a rigid set of rules to govern intellectual property rights.

Some cite book trade in Greece in the 5th century BCE as the first example of the concept of intellectual property, viewing it as the buying and selling of information. However, copyright law as we know it today has developed bit by bit starting in the 18th century, when the precursor of modern copyright, the Statute of Anne, was passed in England in 1710. This act established author's ownership of copyright under a fixed term. The history of copyrights in the United States follows.



1787Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution states, "the Congress shall have 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."
1790Modeled after the Statute of Anne, the Copyright Act of 1790 was passed by the First Congress to grant American authors the right to print, reprint, or publish their work for a period of 14 years, with the possibility of a 14-year extension (the length of this term would be extended several times in the decades that followed). It was meant to provide an incentive to authors, artists, and scientists to create original works by giving them a monopoly.
1853Until the middle of the 19th century, the protection given by law was basically limited to verbatim use of the author's words. In 1853, Harriet Beecher Stowe sued a German publisher of a translation of her UNCLE TOM'S CABIN… and lost. Federal Circuit Court Judge Robert Grier ruled that "a translation may, in loose phraseology, be called a transcript or copy of her thoughts or conceptions, but in no correct sense can it be called a copy of her book."
1867Dickens lobbied the American Congress to recognize the copyright of British authors, as American publishers reprinted their works without obtaining permission or paying royalties. He made little headway at this time, however.
1870The administration of copyright registrations moved into the control of the Library of Congress Copyright Office.
1884The Supreme Court concluded that photographs could be copyrighted.
1891Authors, publishers, and printers' unions joined together to support an international copyright bill, allowing European authors to profit from the publication and sale of their works in the United States.
1906Mark Twain appears before a Congressional committee, urging them to pass a bill extending copyright to the term of the author's life and then 50 years further. Read Twain's speech.
1909A major revision of the Copyright Act extended the scope of what would be covered, broadening to include all works of authorship - works literary, dramatic, musical were now all included.
1971Congress decided that musical recordings, not just the compositions, should be covered by copyright.
1976Twain's wish was fulfilled when the 1976 Copyright Act preempted all previous copyright law and extended the term of protection to 50 years after the death of the author. The act covered scope and subject matter of works covered, exclusive rights, copyright term, copyright notice and copyright registration, copyright infringement, fair use and defenses and remedies to infringement.

Also, library photocopying without permission for educational and preservation purposes was allowed.

1988The United States agreed to the terms of the 1886 Berne Convention, which promoted international standards in copyright protection. One of the resulting changes was the elimination of copyright notice for copyright protection. What this means is that today, almost everything created privately is copyrighted and protected, whether or not it was registered with the Copyright Office or carries a notice.
1998President Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), detailing protection for intellectual property on the Internet.

Also, Congress voted unanimously to extend copyright protection by an additional 20 years, keeping Disney's early cartoons, the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, and other works of the early 20th century from going into the public domain.

2003After hearing a challenge to the 1998 Copyright Extension Act, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of this law that extends the life of most copyrights until 70 years after the author's death. Read about the case.

Although U.S. law has taken a firmer grip on copyright regulations over the years, intellectual property has still not gained worldwide acceptance, and even within the United States, the debate rages on: is information property?

"Tollbooths on the Digital Highway" takes a look at what's next for copyright law, focusing on the central question in the debate over the digital future:

Do we want to treat movies, music, and books as products of commerce or as parts of our culture? Are they private property or public goods? Are they ways for some people to make money or are they things that enrich our society and the world we live in?

Voice your opinion on our discussion boards.


Sources: TIMELINE: A History of Copyright in the United States, written and compiled by Amy Masciola for Association of Research Libraries; The Growth of Intellectual Property: A History of the Ownership of Ideas in the United States, William W. Fisher III, Professor of Law, Harvard University; An Overview of Intellectual Property Protection, Barbara Weil Gall for GigaLaw.com.

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