While copyright now extends to a wide range of intellectual property, from books to computer programs, from paintings to performances, it began very simply. The earliest copyright law came in 1710 in the UK with the Statute of Anne. Prior to that, the printing (and censorship) of reading material was controlled by the Stationers’ Company, which was a guild of printers.
They operated under the Licensing Act, which required parliamentary renewal every two years. After much hue and outcry, however, in 1694, Parliament refused to reauthorize the Act, which many viewed as restricting and controlling. The Stationers’ Company, in fact, held a monopoly over literary production.
Statute of Anne
After repeatedly hitting a brick wall with Parliament, the Stationers’ Company decided to pursue a new tactic: They advocated licensing to authors instead of publishers. Occurring during the reign of Queen Anne, the new law allowed authors to license their works for a certain number of years, and then the works would fall into the realm of public domain. The period of licensing was 14 years.
The Statute of Anne was formally named An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of Copies. In short, the copyright would automatically go to the author, who could then license it to another (the publisher).
Eventually this would be replaced by the Copyright Law of 1842, but for the first time ever, the rights rested in the hands of the creators (the authors) instead of the publishers. Accordingly, this law was considered a true watershed event for the protection of intellectual property. Not only did it benefit the creators of literary works, but it also made provisions for the public benefit (through the concept of public domain).
Overall, the law was intended to provide for a more open system, thus encouraging public knowledge and learning, while protecting the creators of such works.
Reaction to the new law
Of course, this put publishers at a disadvantage compared with their previous status, and as is the case with many other business dealings, publishers sought out loopholes to override their loss. One way was to declare to the courts that because of the already-existing law (or common law), this new ruling was void. Another tactic employed was to ignore the registration requirement. Others battled over literary works once the initial copyright expired. Eventually, however, it would all come back to the fundamental shift in favor of the author.
US copyright developments
While all this was being played out across the pond, in the United States, the first copyright mention came from James Madison who wanted a provision included in the US Constitution. In 1789, the first bill (H.R. 10) was presented. In May of 1790, the first copyright law was enacted, which provided for a protection of 14 years (with another renewal of the same length). This protected not only books, but charts and maps as well.
The law required that the author register at the US District Court at the author’s place of residence. In 1790, John Barry was the first to register his book, “The Philadelphia Spelling Book” in his hometown of Philly. As time has progressed, more and more types of creations have been added, including “literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations,” according to the US Copyright Office.
Fundamentally, the importance of copyright lies with the rights it assigns to the creator of the work, not to a business seeking to profit from the work of others. This is an important right that continues its battle around the globe, particularly in nations where copyright laws are not recognized.