Making Sense of Convoluted Copyright

A brief history of international copyright, with a particular focus on the extensions to rights and length of copyright protection.

Given the many laws, whether national or international, to which creative works are held accountable, it can often be difficult to accurately determine the copyright status of a work. While this timeline will not assist an individual in determining the copyright permissions of a single work, I do hope it sheds light on why copyright laws are so convoluted and the role that industry has played in extending these protections.

1436-01-01 00:00:00

Gutenberg Develops the Printing Press

Prior to Gutenberg's development of the printing press, which occurred some time between 1439 and 1459 (sources vary), was a non-issue as scrolls were tedious to copy by hand. With the advent of the printing press, which took advantage of moveable type, books could be rapidly printed and monopolies were granted to publishers for the sole privilege of printing certain books.

1557-01-01 00:00:00

The Stationer's Company

Although it maintains a voluntary register for copyrighted works today, the Stationer's Company held a powerful monopoly from 1557, when it received a Royal Charter, to 1710, when the Statute of Anne was passed. With this royally-decreed monopoly, the Stationer's Company was officially responsible for setting and enforcing all regulations over the publishing industry.

1595-12-06 15:59:21

John Milton Protests Licensing Order of 1643

In addition to government-sponsored publishing monopolies, this period also saw governmental attempts to control what publishers could print. The Licensing Order of 1643 required authors to obtain a license before publication of works and would destroy books offensive to the government. John Milton wrote Areopagitica (image above) arguing against the license order, thus creating one of the first arguments for freedom of expression.

1710-04-05 00:00:00

Statute of Anne

Otherwise known as the Copyright Act of 1710, the Statute of Anne represented the first governmental regulation of copyright and placed copyright in the hands of the author, rather than publisher. The bill was introduced by Edward Wortley and the law covered Great Britain and Ireland until it was repealed with the passage of the Copyright Act of 1842.

1787-09-17 00:00:00

Copyright Clause of the United States Constitution

In an attempt to consolidate a diverse variety of preexisting state laws, members of Congress, on September 17, 1787, unanimously approved the proposed language of Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, which gives 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."

1790-05-31 00:00:00

Copyright Act of 1790

Heavily influenced by the Statute of Anne, the US Copyright Act of 1790 required works be registered to receive copyright and they be deposited with the Library of Congress. The law provided a 14 year term of protection with the option for a 14 year renewal.

1793-07-19 00:00:00

Chenier Act Passed in France

The Chenier Act, passed as a result of discussion throughout the French Revolution relating to responsibility in publication and the argument against perpetual privileges. The act is the equivalent of early English copyright law and grants legal recognition to authors for their works.

1842-01-07 00:00:00

Copyright Act of 1842

Replacing the Statute of Anne, the Copyright Act of 1842 extended copyright to encompass the lifetime of the author plus seven years or for 42 years, whichever was the longest. Further, it mandated that a copy of every published work be submitted by the publisher to the British Museum; other libraries, including the Cambridge University Library and Trinity College Library were given the same privilege of request for copy. This was the first instance that the concept of "life plus" appeared in copyright legislation.

1844-01-01 23:26:29

Creation of the Littéraire et Artistique Internationale (AIAI)

Led by Victor Hugo with membership representing artists, intellectuals, and publishers, the Association Littéraire et Artistique Internationale (AIAI) held conferences and adopted resolutions. They advocated for a copyright term of 100 years after the date of publication and believed no "formalities should be required for the protection of the copyrights" (History of Copyright).

1886-09-09 00:00:00

Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works

Convened on the urging of Victor Hugo, the Berne Convention guaranteed copyright as soon as a work is "fixed" and set minimum standards of protection, including: the right to translate, make adaptations and arrangements, perform in public, communicate to the public, broadcast, reproduce, and use the work as a basis for an audiovisual work. Finally, the Convention authorized countries to allow "fair" use of copyrighted works. The Convention provides the foundation for many international copyright laws today.

1909-07-01 00:00:00

Copyright Act of 1909

The Copyright Act of 1909 established a period of copyright for 28 years after publication with an option to renew for an additional 28. Further, it required that original works be published and have a notice of copyright affixed before they were protected. Although the act was repealed and superseded by the Copyright Act of 1976, works created before January 1, 1978 are still covered by this law.

1911-12-16 00:00:00

Copyright Act of 1911

Responding to the Berne Convention, the Copyright Act of 1911 both repealed and consolidated earlier copyright acts. It further assigned copyright protection upon the creation of a work and widened the scope of copyright to include new technologies (namely, sound recordings). Finally, it extended the term of copyright to life plus 50 years.

1911-12-16 00:00:00

WIPO Copyright Treaty of 1996

The World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty "is a special agreement under the Berne Convention that deals with the protection of works and the rights of their authors in the digital environment" (WIPO). Specifically it grants the right of distribution, the right of rental, and the right of communication to the public. As in previous laws, it reinforced the concept of life of the author plus 50 years.

1978-01-01 00:00:00

Copyright Act of 1976

Still the foundation of copyright law in the United States, the Copyright Act of 1976 defines works of authorship, clarifies exclusive rights guaranteed (reproduction, creation of derivative works, etc.) under copyright, and codifies "fair use" for the first time.

1988-03-01 00:00:00

United States Joins the Berne Convention

On March 1, 1989, the United States passed the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 and joining the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

1993-10-29 00:00:00

Council of European Communities Directive

In an attempt to harmonize copyright protections, the European Communities issued a directive that protections for literary and artistic works stood at life of the author plus 70 years. The directive cited the need for common copyright provisions to allow the free movement of goods and services. Further the length was extended to take into account longer lifespans and cover the author and two generations of descendants. (History of Copyright)

1998-10-27 00:00:00

Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act

Also referred to as the Sonny Bono Act or the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, the CTEA extended the terms of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years. Works of corporate authorship were extended to the sooner of 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication. As a result of this act, works published prior to January 1, 1978 were granted 95 years of protection after publication.

1998-10-28 00:00:00

Digital Millennium Copyright Act

Pulling from two 1996 WIPO treaties, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act criminalized the unauthorized production or dissemination of "technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent [digital rights management] measures that control access to copyrighted works" (Wikipedia).

2003-05-01 00:00:00

Larry Kenswil "You're Buying a Key"

"Larry Kenswil of Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company, was quoted in the New York Times of Jan. 5th, 2003, in an article about digital copy protection schemes, saying 'You're not buying music, you're buying a key. That's what digital rights management does: it enables business models.'" (Karl Fogel, The Surprising History of Copyright and the Promise of a Post-Copyright World)

2017-07-20 00:00:00

Continuing Legislative Developments

Due to active lobbying from the music, film, and publishing industries, copyright continues legislation continues to come before Congress with the 115th Congress having 11 individual bills introduced between January-July 2017.

Making Sense of Convoluted Copyright

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