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A Brief Overview of Copyright Law in the United States

The information age is also the age of creativity. In a time when everyone is a creator, copyright law and fair use regulations could not be more relevant. In today’s digital world, it has become far easier for people to engage in creative work and put their work out there for the world to see. At the same time, the internet has made it easier to find, save, download, and share work that belongs to others. Whether people self-publish through a private website or other sites like Instagram, today there are millions of people creating original content daily. Copyright is meant to protect the individual intellectual property of creators. Let’s take a look at how the copyright laws originated and some of the major changes that have happened in the 21st century.

The Origins of Author Ownership and Copyright

The printing press changed everything. As soon as printing became more readily available, ideas of intellectual property when it came to the printed word became central to the discussion. The beginnings of copyright law began in England in the 1700s. This law, known as the Statute of Anne, introduced the concept of an author having ownership of his/her work and the idea of laying out protection for that. These concepts and ideas made it across the pond to the United States. After all, America is not known as the land of innovation for nothing. The U.S. government ensured that there were protections put in place for people that were creating innovative works and ideas.

According to Article 1, Section 8 Clause 8 of the Constitution, Congress was encouraged and/or tasked with the promotion of arts and sciences by protecting the ownership rights of creative and scientific works and inventions. The idea of owning one’s intellectual property was then enshrined in U.S law and held up to a high standard from the beginning.

In 1790, the U.S. Congress implemented the foundational provisions of copyright law into the U.S. Constitution. The Statue of Anne served as valuable inspiration for the initial copyright laws in America —The Copyright Act of 1790— An Act for the Encouragement of Learning by Securing the Copies of Maps, Charts, and Books to the Authors and Proprietors of Such Copies. This initial act allowed authors to print and reprint their work for a period of 14 years and then have the option to renew for another 14.

In 1831, there was a Revision of the Copyright Act. The term of protection for authors was extended to 28 years with the possibility of a 14-year extension. This was also modeled after the copyright regulation in England at the time.

Noted Cases that Advanced and Refined Copyright Law

There are plenty of cases that have marched all the way up to the Supreme Court which has had a notable impact on the copyright law as a whole. There are too many to name here, but two early ones include:

Wheaton vs. Peters. This case came about through a dispute regarding the condensed reports of Supreme Court cases. The central argument was that authors retained perpetual rights to their works. The decision did not fall in favor of the idea of copyright as an ongoing natural right but instead adopted a more utilitarian view of authorship as one that was present for the intended purpose of public interest. The intended purpose of these laws was first and foremost to support innovation and the creation of new works.

Folsom vs. Marsh. This case dealt with some published letters of the first President of the United States, George Washington. The owner and editor of a collection of Washington’s letters sued another author named Charles Upham after he used hundreds of these letters in his work on the life of the first president. The now-legendary justice Joseph Story found that Upham did, in fact, infringe upon the author’s copyright and that it should be the estate/heirs of the late author that hold the final copyright. Story purported that it was the letter’s writer (not the person to whom they were addressed) that held the ultimate copyright of said letter.

In 1909, there was yet another revision to the copyright law of the United States. The bill extended the protections of copyright to 28 years with a possible renewal of another 28.

Protect Your Work and Authorship with Copyright Registration

It is important to understand that there are very limited protections for unpublished works: the right to determine when and where to publish the work. But once a work is published, Federal law kicks in and you cannot sue for infringement or collect statutory damages unless you register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. So, the best way to ensure full protection is through proper registration and documentation. Whether you are creating newly written works or creative work of another nature, make sure that you are well-informed about the copyright protections that you have. Registering your work through the copyright office is the surest way to ensure that you are the registered owner and that you are protecting yourself from future infringement or lawsuits of any kind.