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Past and Present

The First US Copyright Law | Past & Present


This originally aired on May 31, 2016.

On May 31, 1790, President George Washington signed the United States’ first copyright bill into law. A short, half-page statute, it granted copyright to books, maps and charts for 14 years, with the option to renew for another 14 years if the author was still alive.

For its model, Congress took the wording verbatim from the 1710 British Statute of Anne that protected the copyright of British books, maps, and charts, but had not applied to the colonies. This omission meant that colonial authors and surveyors had limited control over their product and did not receive royalty payments for their work.

While Revolutionary-era colonists believed this lack of protections to be an affront against the colonies, it also reflected Parliament’s narrow view of the North American colonies as primarily agrarian, with limited current or future production of printed non-government materials.

Thus, members of the 1783 Continental Congress and the 1789 Constitutional Convention included copyright as a federal protection. But under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government had limited central authority, so the Continental Congress could only suggest that states adopt this protection. At the Constitutional Convention in 1789, though, James Madison and Charles Pinckney insisted on adding a federal copyright clause to the US Constitution that granted copyright and patents to promote “the progress of science and useful art.”

Since 1790, the United States has expanded its copyright laws to protect musical composition, paintings and drawings, as well as international and, more recently, digital content. These expansions, much like the initial insistence on including federal copyright protections, reflect the belief that expanding creative and entrepreneurial endeavors lays at the heart of the growing nation.