The printing press was the first technological advance that forced recognition of the question of who would benefit from the mass distribution of an artistic product. The first law that addressed this, the Statute of Anne, was passed in England in 1709, enabling the Stationers Company, until then a publishing monopoly, to protect their rights in the works they purchased from authors against other printers. The term of the protection was 28 years; the author could get back the rights after 14.
The first US copyright law was passed by Congress in 1790 as “an act for the encouragement of learning”; it extended a 14-year copyright to books, maps and charts. In 1831, music in notated form was specifically protected; until that time, it was often copyrighted as a book or engraving. The term of copyright protection has changed over the years. The 1976 Copyright Act protected new works for the life of the author plus 50 years; the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension extended the term for works still covered by copyright by 20 years, making the term life of the author plus 70 years.
In the 19th century, problems raised by new uses and technologies required new ideas about the extent of copyright. In 1853, for example, when Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into German without authorization, the court allowed it. But in 1870, a comprehensive revision of copyright by Congress prohibited unauthorized new uses of literary works, such as translations or dramatization. In 1865, photographs were protected for the first time. At the turn of the century, when Thomas Edison sued over the unauthorized duplication of a motion picture, the trial court ruled against him, because movies were not specifically protected. In 1903, that decision was reversed on appeal, and in 1912, movies were added to the copyright domain.
Intellectual Property: Whose Song is it Anyway?
by Heidi Waleson