The Origin of Copyright the first Law and how it was Received

The first copyright act was the Statute of Anne (1710). It gave authors the right to their works for 14 years, during which they could choose the printers who would publish their work. At the end of the term, a living author could renew his copyright for a single additional term of 14 years. After copyright expired, the work would fall into the public domain.


The Statute of Anne (1710) has its roots in the Licensing of the Press Act (1662). The Licensing Act gave the Stationers’ Company the exclusive right to publish any book they had registered. The right could be renewed indefinitely and even inherited or sold, as long as the book was not out of print for more than 6 months at a time. Under the Licensing Act, the author had no ongoing rights at all.

This printing monopoly was closely connected with government censorship, which was highly controversial. Faced with public protest, the Licensing Act was allowed to lapse in 1694. This also caused the publishing monopoly to collapse.

When the Stationers’ Company could not push through a renewed Licensing Act, it shifted its attention to authors’ rights. The result was the Statute of Anne, which would remain in place until the British Copyright Act (1842) replaced it.

Difficulties with the new act

In practise, the Statute of Anne ran into 2 difficulties: the publishers’ requirement to deposit books, and the limits of the copyright.

The first difficulty affected the publishers ability to make a profit. Publishers were required to deposit each book with the Stationers’ Company, the universities, and the royal library. Most books of the time had very small printing runs. Placing the number of required books on deposit  could turn a small printing run from profit to loss. The publishers responded by not registering most books.

The second difficulty cut into the author’s rights. As defined by the Statute, copyright only covered exact reprints of books. At the same time, the Stationers’ Company still had much of its original power. This left publishers free to offer authors the same original lump sum as under the Licensing Act, only now it included transfer of the copyright as well.

United States copyright law

In the U.S., the first federal copyright law was the Copyright Act (1790). It is almost identical to the Statute of Anne, except that it adds maps and charts to books and changes the places where these works are to be deposited. As with the Statute of Anne, these works were only copyrighted if they were registered. Other forms of creativity were not covered at all until much later.

This was not the first copyright law in the U.S. Laws had been passed at the state level in 3 states even before the 1783 author petition, but their terms were limited to 5 or 7 years.

Because the Continental Congress had no authority over this type of commerce, it had originally tried to encourage the states to pass their own laws, with a recommended copyright term of at least 14 years from first publication, along with the right of renewal for living authors. This proposal is based on the Statute of Anne, and is a carryover from British law.

In response, all the states except Delaware had passed a state copyright law. Of those laws, 7 followed the Statute of Anne with a maximum of 2 14-year terms. The other state laws which were passed between 1783 and 1790 had single-term copyright without right of renewal. Terms ranged from 14 to 21 years.

During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, state representatives proposed that Congress should have the right to grant copyright at the federal level. The result was the Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8).

Difficulties with the new act

U.S. citizens had very little difficulty with the new act. However, foreign citizens could not apply for U.S. copyright protection. This often resulted in unauthorized U.S. editions of foreign novels, for which the author received no royalty. Although several lawsuits chipped away at this issue, the problem was not fully addressed until the Berne Convention Implementation Act (1988).