Copyright History and Influences


The following timeline represents a presentation to students as an intro to the establishment and evolution of copyright in the United States. It shows that our laws have been influenced by international developments of rights for authors, as well as the development of new technology. Deeper questions for students to consider: How does (or doesn’t?) copyright protect the interests of authors and creators? Who benefits from copyright today?

Significance at each step:

1-The Statute of Anne was heavily backed by Stationers who were given power to “seize offending books”, however they were primarily motivated by money and would follow directions of whoever gave them money (primarily the government or Church). Eventually their power was taken away, and the idea of giving rights to authors was a way that they could get back in the business of making money off the authors.

2-This is significant because it provided motivation to James Madison to promote copyright among the founding fathers, in an effort to protect author’s work in the entire nation. The argument would be that without a united copyright front, publishers could capitalize on authors works in other states than their own.

3-Rights for authors and inventors in their “writings and discoveries”

4-This act provided rights to US citizens only, thus many authors in Great Britain had their works pirated in the United States. Ironically, the Act was modeled after Britain’s Statute of Anne.

5&7-Signs of the changing times and advancing technology, thus a rise of demand for more “inventors/authors” rights to be protected.

6- Berne convention established a united copyright front across many European countries. This helped cut down publishers from different countries from the authors from capitalizing on their work. It also gave rights for the life of the author, and took into consideration the ability to pass those rights on to future generations (2).

8&9- US adopts longer copyright limits to keep up with those established internationally, and longer life expectancy. This is also significant because of the US has increased it’s media interests and cultural power since it first established copyright law. It reflects it’s desire to protect US interests on the world-wide stage.

Required Readings:

Additional Sources:

A Brief History of Copyright in the US




2 Replies to “Copyright History and Influences”

  1. Your lead questions are the eternal questions! I am often struck by how the copyright debate(s) demonstrate how complicated our understanding of self-interest is…and in a way that parallels political engagement and voting. Many people who don’t benefit from the current system, or who struggle mightily in it, are still deeply reluctant to even consider that there might be other/better ways. I wonder if—in the same way that lower-income brackets often support policies that only benefit brackets significantly higher than their own—this is a kind of reflection of aspiration, that rather than considering their self-interest they are instead thinking more about dreams of what their future self might be?

  2. After reading this, I got the impression that certain copyright laws were exploited many times over (or that they never really fixed the problem the laws were intended to address). Book copying is one example where exploiters used others work by continually circumventing the law. The Lord of the Rings is a great example because certain versions of the “offbrand” are still in circulation. Its probably the most recent, significant book in copyright issues and in general editing because every version is really complicated, full of errors, and has numerous publishing nightmares as a result of poor copyright and edition management.

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