Copyrights have often been the subjects of scrutiny and debate. The copyright has a long history and its function today is much different than it was at its conception. As new forms of technologies are invented, so are new forms of expression. Along with these new forms of expression comes debates about whether they should now fall under copyright laws. In the United States, three formal revisions and numerous smaller amendments have been made to the Copyright Act. As long as the world keeps changing, so will the copyright.

The creation of the copyright can be traced to the invention of the printing press. A copyright is “protection provided by the law to an individual or entity for original works produced by that author.” Before the printing press was created, copyright laws were not really needed. Authors did not need protection against stolen work because of the long and tedious task of hand-copying books. However, quickly after the printing press proved itself to be revolutionary in the field of, well, printing, copying books became a much easier process. The copyright was originally given as a monopoly to printers of the Stationer’s Company by the king as an exclusive right to copy. The first formal copyright act in the world was England’s Statute of Anne. Authors were not consenting to the printing and reprinting of their books, so this gave them a legal right to their original works for fourteen years plus an extension of up to fourteen years, if the author was still alive when the copyright expired.

The Statute of Anne, while not perfect, was the base upon which many other countries built their own copyright acts. The United States was no exception. Copyright protection was authorized in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution: “The Congress shall have 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 Copyright Act of 1790 was modeled on the Statute of Anne and gave American authors right to their works for fourteen years, renewable up to another fourteen. After many amendments, creators now own the rights to their work for life plus an additional seventy years.

The copyright we know today is a form of intellectual property law. This means that a copyright protects original works of authorship that include, but are not limited to, literary, musical, and artistic works, photographs, movies, sound recordings, and architectural works. Both published and unpublished work are protected under copyright, but if you wanted to bring a lawsuit for infringement to a court, you would need to register a copyright. I found it interesting that unpublished works were copyright protected and that, according to the United States Copyright Office, “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” A copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation. The United States also has copyright relations with most of the countries of the world. This means authors’ works are honored under a copyright not only in the country that granted the copyright, but in all other countries it has an agreement with. A copyright gives the author the rights to reproduce the work, distribute the work, perform the work publicly, and display the copyrighted work publicly. When a copyright expires, the work becomes part of the “public domain.”

The final major revision of the United States Copyright Act in 1976 contained an important section that granted libraries a special immunity to copyright infringement. It states that:

the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.

This revision is the reason we can use handouts of copyrighted work or copy books for use in the classroom today. The changes made to the copyright over the years have been vital to the incentive of creating artistic works.


One thought on “Copyright

  1. Pingback: AAS Visit | HSTA 321 Media and Communications in American History

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