Timeline: Copyright in the United States

Copyright law, over the centuries, has grown more complex. It is critical that small businesses, individual writers, and publishers thoroughly understand the fundamentals as they apply to their work and decisions and our Pocket Copyright Guide for Publishers is a great place to start.

Copyright Origins

Copyright law began with the invention of the printing press and the accompanying wider literacy. As a legal concept, its origins can be found in a reaction to printers’ monopolies at the beginning of the 18th century. Charles II of England was concerned by the unregulated copying of books and passed the Licensing of the Press Act 1662 by Act of Parliament, establishing a register of licensed books and required a copy to be deposited with the Stationers’ Company. Most copyright systems around the globe can be traced that back to the Licensing of the Press Act.

The U.S. Copyright Office

The Constitution gives Congress the power to enact laws establishing a system of copyright in the United States. Congress enacted the first federal copyright law in May 1790, and the first work was registered within two weeks.

Originally, claims were recorded by clerks of U.S. district courts. Eighty years later, in 1870, copyright functions were centralized in the Library of Congress under the direction of then Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford. The Copyright Office became a separate department of the Library of Congress in 1897. Thorvald Solberg was appointed the first Register of Copyrights.

U.S. Copyright Timeline

This timeline was was first published in the United States Copyright Office’s A Brief Introduction and History.

  • August 18, 1787 – James Madison submitted to the framers of the Constitution a provision ‘to secure to literary authors their copyrights for a limited time.’
  • June 23, 1789 – First federal bill relating to copyrights (H.R. 10) presented to the first Congress.
  • May 31, 1790 – First copyright law enacted under the new U.S. Constitution. Term of 14 years with privilege of renewal for term of 14 years. Books, maps, and charts protected. Copyright registration made in the U.S. District Court where the author or proprietor resided.
  • June 9, 1790 – First copyright entry, The Philadelphia Spelling Book by John Barry, registered in the U.S. District Court of Pennsylvania.
  • April 29, 1802 – Prints added to protected works.
  • February 3, 1831 – First general revision of the copyright law. Music added to works protected against unauthorized printing and vending. First term of copyright extended to 28 years with privilege of renewal for term of 14 years.
  • August 18, 1856 – Dramatic compositions added to protected works.
  • December 31, 1864 – President Abraham Lincoln appoints Ainsworth Rand Spofford to be the sixth Librarian of Congress. Spofford served as the de facto Register of Copyrights until the position of Register was created in 1897.
  • March 3, 1865 – Photographs and photographic negatives added to protected works.
  • July 8, 1870 – Second general revision of the copyright law. Copyright activities, including deposit and registration, centralized in the Library of Congress. Works of art added to protected works. Act reserved to authors the right to create certain derivative works including translations and dramatizations. Indexing of the record of registrations began.
  • March 3, 1891 – First U.S. copyright law authorizing establishment of copyright relations with foreign countries. Records of works registered, now called the Catalog of Copyright Entries, published in book form for the first time in July 1891.
  • January 6, 1897 – Music protected against unauthorized public performance.
  • February 19, 1897Copyright Office established as a separate department of the Library of Congress. Position of Register of Copyrights created.
  • July 1, 1909 – Effective date of third general revision of the copyright law. Admission of certain classes of unpublished works to copyright registration. Term of statutory protection for a work copyrighted in published form measured from the date of publication of the work. Renewal term extended from 14 to 28 years.
  • August 24, 1912 – Motion pictures, previously registered as photographs, added to classes of protected works.
  • July 13, 1914 – President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed U.S. adherence to Buenos Aires Copyright Convention of 1910, establishing convention protection between the United States and certain Latin American nations.
  • July 1, 1940 – Effective date of transfer of jurisdiction for the registration of commercial prints and labels from the Patent Office to the Copyright Office.
  • July 30, 1947 – Copyright law codified into positive law as title 17 of the U.S. Code.
  • January 1, 1953  – Recording and performing rights extended to nondramatic literary works.
  • September 16, 1955 – Effective date of the coming into force in the United States of the Universal Copyright Convention as signed at Geneva, Switzerland, on September 6, 1952. Proclaimed by President Dwight Eisenhower. Also, date of related changes in title 17 of the U.S. Code.
  • September 19, 1962 – First of nine special acts extending terms of subsisting renewal copyrights pending congressional action on general copyright law revision.
  • February 15, 1972 – Effective date of act extending limited copyright protection to sound recordings fixed and first published on or after this date.
  • March 10, 1974 – United States became a member of the Convention for the Protection of Producers of Phonograms Against Unauthorized Duplication of Their Phonograms, which came into force on April 18, 1973.
  • July 10, 1974 – United States became party to the 1971 revision of the Universal Copyright Convention as revised at Paris, France.
  • October 19, 1976 – Fourth general revision of the copyright law signed by President Gerald Ford.
  • January 1, 1978 – Effective date of principal provisions of the 1976 copyright law. The term of protection for works created on or after this date consists of the life of the author and 50 years after the author’s death. Numerous other provisions modernized the law.
  • December 12, 1980 – Copyright law amended regarding computer programs.
  • May 24, 1982 – Section 506(a) amended to provide that persons who infringe copyright willfully and for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain shall be punished as provided in Section 2319 of title 18 of the U.S. Code, ‘Crimes and Criminal Procedure.’
  • October 4, 1984 – Effective date of Record Rental Amendments of 1984. Grants the owner of copyright in a sound recording the right to authorize or prohibit the rental, lease, or lending of phonorecords for direct or indirect commercial purposes.
  • November 8, 1984 – Federal statutory protection for mask works became available under the Semiconductor Chip Protection Act, with the Copyright Office assuming administrative responsibility. Copyright Office began registration of claims to protection on January 7, 1985.
  • June 30, 1986 – Manufacturing clause of the Copyright Act expired.
  • March 1, 1989 – United States adhered to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.
  • November 15, 1990 – Section 511 added to copyright law. Provides that states and state employees and instrumentalities are not immune under the Eleventh Amendment from suit for copyright infringement.
  • December 1, 1990 – Effective date of the Computer Software Rental Amendments Act. Grants the owner of copyright in computer programs the exclusive right to authorize or prohibit the rental, lease, or lending of the program for direct or indirect commercial purposes.
  • December 1, 1990 – Protection extended to architectural works. Section 106A added to copyright law by Visual Artists Rights Act. Grants to visual artists certain moral rights of attribution and integrity.
  • June 26, 1992 – Renewal registration became optional. Works copyrighted between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977, automatically renewed even if registration not made.
  • October 28, 1992 – Digital Audio Home Recording Act required serial copy management systems in digital audio recorders and imposed royalties on sale of digital audio recording devices and media. Royalties are collected, invested, and distributed among the owners of sound recording and musical compositions, certain performing artists and/or their representatives. Clarified legality of home taping of analog and digital sound recordings for private noncommercial use.
  • December 8, 1993 – North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act (NAFTA) extended retroactive copyright protection to certain motion pictures first fixed in Canada or Mexico between January 1, 1978, and March 1, 1989, and published anywhere without a copyright notice; and/or to any work embodied in them; and made permanent the prohibition of sound recordings rental.
  • December 17, 1993 – Copyright Royalty Tribunal Reform Act of 1993 eliminated the CRT and replaced it with ad hoc Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panels administered by the Librarian of Congress and the Copyright Office.
  • December 8, 1994 – Uruguay Round Agreements Act restored copyright to certain foreign works under protection in the source country but in the public domain in the United States; repealed sunset of the Software Rental Amendments Act; and created legal measures to prohibit the unauthorized fixation and trafficking in sound recordings of live musical performances and music videos.
  • November 16, 1997 – The No Electronic Theft Act defined ‘financial gain’ in relation to copyright infringement and set penalties for willfully infringing a copyright either for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain or by reproducing or distributing, including by electronic means phonorecords of a certain value.
  • October 27, 1998 – The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended the term of copyright protection for most works to the life of the author plus 70 years after the author’s death.
  • October 28, 1998 – The Digital Millennium Copyright Act provided for the implementation of the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty; limited certain online infringement liability for Internet service providers; created an exemption permitting a temporary reproduction of a computer program made by activating a computer in the course of maintenance or repair; clarified the policy role of the Copyright Office; and created a form of protection for vessel hulls.
  • November 2, 2002 – The Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act provided for the use of copyrighted works by accredited nonprofit educational institutions in distance education.
  • November 30, 2004 – The Copyright Royalty and Distribution Reform Act phased out the Copyright Arbitration Rlyalty Panel system and replaced it with the Copyright Royalty Board
  • April 27, 2005 – The Artists’ Rights and Theft Preservation Act allowed for preregistration of certain works being prepared for commercial distribution.
  • December 11, 2006 – New Copyright Public Records Reading Room opened to the public.
  • July 1, 2008 – Electronic registration on the Copyright Office website made available to the public.