May 31, 2015 marked the 225th anniversary of the nation’s first federal copyright law. It was signed into law by President George Washington on May 31, 1790 and was one of the major accomplishments of the First Congress (along with legislation establishing the Department of State, the Department of the Treasury, and the federal judiciary, among other institutions).
The law was called “An Act for the encouragement of learning,” and it protected “maps, Charts, and books.” The decision to protect maps and charts indicates that the First Congress wanted to encourage exploration of the American continent, including its lakes, rivers, and harbors. The decision to protect books confirms that the First Congress also valued the creation and distribution of authorship, both for informational and artistic purposes. These objectives are reflected in the works that were registered in the first month after enactment, which included an atlas, a spelling book, a collection of court decisions, and a “comedy in five acts.”
The first federal copyright law established many of the fundamental principles that are a vital part of the law today. It stated that copyright initially belongs to the author—the person who conceived and created the work— rather than the publisher or the state. At the same time, it recognized that an author’s rights are not perpetual but instead should be limited in time. And it recognized that authors are part of a larger economic ecosystem, and that they often transfer their rights to publishers, retailers, or other parties. The first federal copyright law established the principle that authors should have rights to control the use of their works, such as how they are printed, reprinted, published, and sold. It recognized that authors should have meaningful remedies to encourage others to respect these rights and to provide appropriate compensation when those rights are infringed. And, it recognized the central role a registration system plays in documenting a public record of creativity, ownership, term, and other legal facts.
Much has changed in the past 225 years. The copyright law today protects not only books, maps, and charts, but also movies, sound recordings, software, and other works that contribute to the knowledge economy and global marketplace. But the fundamental principles reflected in the first federal copyright law continue to inspire the Copyright Office in its work today.
Did you know that original works created by the U.S. Government are not protected by Copyright Law?