Copyright: Still Relevant after 500 Years

Copyright is used to protect original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  It is a useful tool to prevent the copying of books, software, and other valuable creative and useful works.  It was developed almost 500 years ago largely in response to the invention of the printing press in 1440 by German Johannes Gutenberg.  Gutenberg was a goldsmith by profession and developed a complete printing system which allowed the precise and rapid creation of metal movable type in large quantities.

The mechanization of bookmaking led to the first mass production of books in history in assembly line-style.  A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per workday.  Books of bestselling authors like Luther or Erasmus were sold by the hundreds of thousands in their lifetimes.

The British Crown decided to censor the new industry. So in 1557 Queen Mary granted the exclusive right of printing to the Stationer’s Company.  Those rights included the right to destroy unauthorized presses and books.  It held these rights until 1694.  In 1710, the first modern copyright act was passed in England – entitled the Statute of Ann.  It provided authors the exclusive right to print their books for a period of 28 years.  However, booksellers had so much control over the ability to bring a new book to market that the authors usually had to sell their copyright to the bookseller.

After our successful revolution from England, the United States passed the Copyright Act of 1790.  However, protection was limited to maps, charts and books and lasted for a term of 14 years, renewable for an additional 14 years.  In 1909, a new Copyright Act allowed for protection of “all writings of an author” for two terms of 28 years.   But new technologies such as radio, television and the phonograph created new issues and economic interests.  These issues were addressed in the Copyright Act of 1976 which governs copyright today.  It provides five basic economic rights to the author, including the right to make copies, the right to create derivative works, the right to control distribution until a first sale of a copy, the right to publicly display a work and the right to publicly perform a work.  These five rights are the backbone of some very valuable copyright oriented businesses such as the movie, music and software industries.  Further, the term of protection was increased so that the rights endure for the life of the author plus seventy years.

Copyright continues to evolve as new technologies present themselves.  At the heart of every change though is the goal of creating a valuable economic right for the author, or in the case of employee-created works, for the employer.

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