The Origins of Copyright
By J.S. Ackerman
“The Copyright Office’s mission is to promote creativity in society by creating and maintaining the publicrecord through registration of claims and recordation of documents.”–excerpt from Copyright Office Mission Statement
Did you know that copyright is part of the U.S. Constitution? Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution of 1789 gave 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.” The framers must have thought the idea important: It’s right there between setting up the postal service and establishing lower Federal courts.
Did you know that it was freelancers who lobbied to make it law? Translating this power into law was the task of the First Congress. A bunch of freelancers banded together to prod them to act. Eighteen writers and inventors petitioned “for exclusive privileges as authors.”
Although Thomas Jefferson wrote Rep. James Madison of Virginia that he would prefer a longer copyright term than the renewable fourteen years taken from British precedent, the House passed the bill on April 30, with the Senate concurring on May 14. President Washington signed “An Act for the encouragement of learning” for authors of maps, charts, and books on May 31, 1790. The principle of copyright still holds true today: The creator owns the work.
The principle of copyright that Jefferson, Madison, and Washington agreed on is vital today: The author owns the work.
The law declared “that any person or persons who shall print or publish any manuscript, without the consent or approbation of the author or proprietor thereof, first had and obtained as aforesaid [i.e., by advance written agreement] shall be liable to suffer and pay to the said author or proprietor all damages occasioned by such injury” (First Congress, Sess. II, Chap. XV, Sec. 6). This central idea of copyright survives in the current 1978 law, despite ongoing efforts by publishers’ attorneys to distort it beyond recognition. It’s worth recalling that it was a coalition of freelancers who banded together to secure intellectual property rights for themselves and for all who came after them.