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Flashback Friday: Copyright Act of 1790

by Traci Avet on 2024-05-31T06:30:00-07:00 in Flashback Friday, History, Humanities | 0 Comments

old books and globeSome of us may equate copyright with sternly-worded signs hung over library copy machines. But copyright is critical to fostering and incentivizing creativity, as well as acting as an extension of the educational experience, and is especially pertinent with the growing nature of artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, copyright issues extend way back in American history, to before our country's birth.

In the latter 18th century, our founding fathers had been watching Great Britain closely. Eighty years earlier, Britain had implemented its Statute of Anne, which extended some of the printing and selling rights previously held by its primary printing company, Stationer’s Company, to the authors of the works they printed. In the United States, though, authors still had no legal framework for copyright protection. That lack of protection, our founders knew, provided little incentive for authors to create works that could be valuable to citizens, businesses, or even the government itself.

While they didn’t yet have a framework, they included Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 in our constitution, which sought to "promote the progress of science and useful arts". It was their way of ensuring that intellectual property protection and creative incentives would eventually be addressed. And addressed it was on May 31, 1790, when Congress passed the nation’s first statute related to copyright. Now known as the Copyright Act of 1790, it offered authors protection for books, maps, and charts for fourteen years.

Several more statute iterations would come, one of the most significant being the Copyright Act of 1976. With that legislation, creators were granted protection across more formats, more options for potential monetization of their work in future projects, and more avenues for remuneration in cases of infringement. And in a huge turnaround, the new act provided educators with at least some relief for the resources they aimed to use in higher education through fair use.

Today's sound artists, digital creators, and AI users may be eagerly awaiting a fresh revisiting of our copyright tenets. However, the Copyright Act of 1790 helped to establish that first foundation of protection for the work that our citizens produce, and for others looking to utilize those works in ways that honor the rights of the protected.

To learn more about copyright, explore the resources below from the library databases:music copyright


Explore the intertwined histories of journalism and copyright law in the United States and Great Britain in Who Owns the News?: A History of Copyright. It also examines how technology, policy, and publishing strategy shape the media landscape. 

In Coaching Copyright, a librarian and attorney teams up with an information literacy expert to offer a framework for coaching copyright, empowering users to take a practical approach to specific situations. 

The Fight over Digital Rights: The Politics of Copyright and Technology examines the debate over digital copyright, from the late 1980s through early 2012, and the new tools of political communication involved in the advocacy around the issue. 


Marcus Gilroy-Ware analyzes copyright law in Digital Culture, Creativity, and Copyright Law, paying particular attention to its application on the internet.

In TEDTalks: Larry Lessig - How Creativity Is Being Strangled by the Law, Harvard professor Larry Lessig explores law within a creative culture, covering such topics as John Philip Sousa and celestial copyrights.

Lawyer Angela Perry discusses how businesses can avoid unwittingly violating copyright law in Copyright Warning. Learn about the dangers of downloading and using copyrighted material, and how copyright holders can protect their copyrights.


Traci AvetTraci Avet is a librarian who has worked in libraries for over twenty years, and has had the pleasure of experiencing vast card catalogs and due-date card stamping.


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