While copyright law today may seem to revolve around what rappers can or can’t sample or what Google can or can’t do, its roots go back to 15th-century Europe and the transformative technology of the time, the printing press.
Replacing the laborious method of copying by hand, printing presses made available unprecedented amounts of books. In part, monarchs and church leaders welcomed this: more Bibles and royal decrees in more hands. But printing presses also allowed writings of dissent to circulate more freely; not so good. To control what appeared in print, governments required publishers—organized as guilds—to have licenses. The licenses gave guilds the exclusive right to print and sell particular works. The guilds, not authors, owned the work. Needless to say, licenses went to publishers who were in favor with authorities, amounting to government-blessed monopolies. In England, under the License Act of 1643, royal censors had to approve material before granting publishers a license, an arrangement that prompted John Milton to fire off his Areopagitica in protest.
The License Act lapsed in 1695. In 1710, during the reign of Queen Anne, the Copyright Act went into effect, better known as the Statute of Anne, which is much easier to remember than its full title, “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.” It was the world’s first copyright law, historic in granting authors control of their works. Copyright terms lasted 14 years, renewable for another 14 years if the author was still alive; books already in print were protected for 21 years.
Decades later, the drafters of the United States Constitution drew heavily on the Statute of Anne in writing the copyright clause, its “promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts” a clear echo of “Encouragement of Learning.” When Congress passed the first Copyright Act, in 1790, it set identical terms of 14 years.
It’s always been a principle of U.S. law that creators can benefit from their works for a limited time, after which the works enter the public domain. But how long is a limited time? In 1909, Congress approved copyright terms of 28 years, renewable once. That set off decades of ever-increasing terms. By 1998, Congress was happy to pass the current terms of life of the author plus 70 years and, for corporate works, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first. Unconstitutional? No: the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress can pretty much set any copyright term it wants, provided that there is some endpoint, however far off. Congress also has done away with requirements to provide notice of copyright, register it with the U.S. Copyright Office, and renew it at the end of a term, once all standard formalities. We’re a long way from the Statute of Anne.
But even in the Statute of Anne, in its archaic, oddly capitalized prose, are whiffs of the public-good-versus-creator’s-rights debate that rages today. While the act aimed to encourage “Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books,” it also sought to squash piracy, noting that printers, booksellers, and others “have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing” writings without the consent of authors or proprietors, “to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families.” Copyright remains, as it ever was, a balancing act.