The legislative foundation for the Federal copyright law of the American Government was established by the passage by Congress of the Copyright Act of 1790. The background for this step in American copyright law can be found in the established practices of the United States’ onetime home country of England and the widely based but irregular systems in effect in the various American states.
In the period when the American states were still bound only loosely together by the Articles of Federation, copyright law was in existence through various statutes in all of the states but Delaware.
At the Constitutional Convention of 1790, the delegates James Madison and Charles Pinckney had argued that the creation of a Federally-enforced copyright law would form an important part of the intellectual and commercial activity of the newly constituted United States. As such, the drafters of the Constitution included language, to be found in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, which gave the newly formed Congress the ability “to promote the progress of Science and the Useful Arts by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”
With this background of Constitutional empowerment, the Second Session of Congress, which began on January 4, 1790, passed the Copyright Act of 1790 after only limited debate and with widespread consensus.
The conception and even some of the specific language of the Copyright Act of 1790 proceeded from the previous standard for strong copyright law: the Statute of Anne. England had passed this copyright law into effect in 1709, naming it for the formerly reigning queen, but opted not to include colonies such as those in North America under its intellectual property protections, which were not felt to be necessary for subject countries mostly necessary as sources for goods rather than as centers for intellectual activity.
The conceptual background for the Statute of Anne can be found in the Seventeenth Century, during which the rise of the earlier English publishing industry prompted literary figures, notably among them the poet John Milton, to advocate for the creation of a system of copyright law. In drawing on their background in the English legal system, the drafters of the Copyright Act of 1790 adjusted its extent of protection in terms of how many kinds of materials it applied to and the periods of time during which they would be protected.
The Statute of Anne had applied only to books, but the Copyright Act of 1790 widened its definition of creative labors to include maps and charts, a growing industry at the time. The provisions of the Statute of Anne had provided for only one period of time of protection for a work, lasting twenty-one years, before it lapsed into the public domain. The Copyright Act of 1790 provided for two terms, each lasting fourteen years. As it had with the Statute of Anne, the issue of copyright law across borders remained in the background at this time, pending the 19th Century passing of international treaties. If you need legal advice and assistance, contact copyright lawyers.