The Copyright Act of 1790 created a set of limited, but exclusive, rights for authors to copy, print, and sell certain of their expressive works.
The first federal copyright statute, passed by the second session of the First Congress, was signed into law by President George Washington on May 31, 1790, predating ratification of the First Amendment and Bill of Rights.
U.S. Constitution gives Congress power to create copyright law
By the drafting of the Constitution, all of the original states had passed their own copyright statutes, following the encouragement of the Congress of the Confederation to do so in 1783. Later, the framers of the Constitution specifically authorized Congress, in Article 1, section 8, “To promote the progress of Science and Useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors … the exclusive Right to their respective Writings.”
With this authority, Congress set out to craft a single, federal standard for copyright to supersede all state copyright statutes, which diverged in the scope of rights protected and the procedural requirements for securing copyright.
Congress modeled the 1790 act in large part on the 1710 Statute of Anne, the first English copyright law.
First copyright law was for “encouragement of learning”
The stated intent of the 1790 provision was the “encouragement of learning.” The act was brief in comparison to today’s federal copyright law, consisting of seven sections and extending protection only to the authors of maps, charts, books, and manuscripts. Under the act, authors could secure the exclusive right to copy, print, and sell their works by depositing and registering a copy with the clerk of the local federal district court in addition to depositing one copy with the U.S. secretary of state.
The 1790 act further provided that authors could bring private suits to recover monetary damages against infringers who copied, imported, or sold their copyrighted works without permission. One-half of the damages recovered would go to the federal government. The copyright term lasted for 14 years, with one renewable 14-year term.
Of interest, the act explicitly did not prohibit the copying, reprinting, or selling of works by noncitizens, thereby permitting, in effect, piracy of foreign authors’ works.
U.S. copyright law has undergone legislative overhauls several times, most significantly with general revisions in 1831, 1870, 1909, and 1976.
This article was published in 2009 while Kevin R. Davis was Associate General Counsel at Vanderbilt University. He is now Senior Counsel at HealthTrust Purchasing Group.