A Succinct Timeline of Copyright Legislation

Analysis of SOPA and ACTA coming soon, but first let’s take a look at copyright landmarks through today, from the Statute of Anne through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Sonny Bono Term Extension Act. Tracking the progress of copyright expansion, until it protects everything anyone makes remotely creative (including, say, email and children’s drawings) for the author’s entire life plus 70 years after death. All in the interest of incentivizing more creation (more emails?).

1710 – Statute of Anne – Put into place to maintain the printing monopoly of the Stationers’ Company (English printing guild) after the Parliament refused to renew the Licensing Act. The Licensing Act gave the Stationers the exclusive right to print in exchange for censoring material the Crown didn’t want published. The public wasn’t too happy about that, so the Statute of Anne was pitched as a law to benefit authors. Copyright monopolies were granted for a term of 14 years, after which the work went into public domain.

1787 – The Founding Fathers wrote the Copyright Clause into the Constitution. “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.”

1790 – Copyright Act of 1790, granted national protection to American authors for 14 years with one 14 year renewal.

1891 – International Copyright Act – Copyright protection extended to foreign authors.

1909 – Copyright Act of 1909 – Published works were protected by federal copyright after complying with formalities, unpublished works may be protected by state copyright. Copyright protection was granted for 28 years and could be renewed once. After the maximum of 56 years, the work went into public domain.

1976 – Copyright Act of 1976 – All fixed works, published and unpublished, are covered by federal copyright. Some formalities were still required until 1989, and the term was extended to life plus 50 years. The act gave authors Termination Rights, copyright holder may unilaterally terminate a transfer after 35 years.[1]

1989 – Berne Convention – Eliminated all formalities, so copyright attaches to everything automatically. Now an author only needs to register a work if they plan on going to court. Brought the US in line with international standards, but marked a shift to thinking of copyright incentivization in primarily economic terms.

1990 – Visual Artists’ Rights Act – VARA expanded copyright protection for the visual arts and recognized three basic moral rights of artists – the right to the integrity of the work, a right of attribution, and the right to prevent misattribution or misuse of one’s name. In addition, artists of “recognized stature” may prevent intentional or neglect destruction of their work.

1994 – Uruguay Round Agreements Act restored copyright in some works that were in public domain, allowing for enforcement suits against good-faith users.

1996 – Digital Millennium Copyright Act – Heightens penalties for online copyright infringement while limiting liability for some providers of online services for secondary infringement.

1998 – Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act – Extended copyright by 20 years, to life + 70 years for human authors and the earlier of 120 after creation or 95 years from publication for corporate authors.

Post #7 in Copyright 500 Series – Copyright Law in 500 Words or Less

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. This is starting to be an issue in the music industry where the band or singer signed over all rights to the record label, and will be able to claim them back now. The music industry is fighting it and saying the records were works for hire, so the copyright should stay with the employer.

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