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History of copyright

This article deals with the history of copyright law.

Table of contents
1 Chronology
2 Analysis: recurring themes in the history of copyright
3 References


Prehistory of copyright

The origins of copyright systems are generally placed in the practice of various monarchs in granting "letters patent", arbitrary grants of monopoly over a particular practice or trade. Such grants were an invaluable source of power for rulers who possesed much theoretical authority, but little cash (indeed, the abuse of monopolies by the early Stuarts was a major factor leading to the English civil war).

In the two centuries following the invention of the printing press, such grants were given periodically to printers (and occasionally authors) with regard to particular works.

In Britain, the culmination of this practice was the Licensing Act of 1662, which granted a monopoly on the entirety of English publishing to the Stationers' Company of London (the quid pro quo for this grant was censorship of heretical and seditious material).

Early copyright statutes

The first copyright law, in the modern sense, was the English Statute of Anne, enacted in 1709. It granted exclusive rights to authors, rather than publishers, and it included protections for consumers of printed works, ensuring that publishers could not control their use after sale. It also limited the duration of such exclusive rights to 28 years (14 years with an optional renewal), after which all works would pass into the public domain.

Although the principal lobbyists for the Statute of Anne were publishers — whose position had suffered from anti-monopoly sentiment in the preceding decades — it was at this point that the publishing industry began arguing for authors rights. This strategy created legal monopoly privileges which could be assigned to a publisher, without the same levels of political opposition as a direct publishers' monopoly [Lowenstein]; the strategy remains in widespread use today.

Origins of contintental European tradition

Declarations of the rights of authors (and inventors) during the French Revolution. Genesis of the continental European traditions of moral and economic rights.

Early internationalisation

The Berne Convention of 1886 first established the recognition of copyrights between sovereign nations. (Copyright protection was also provided by the Universal Copyright Convention of 1952, but that convention is today largely of historical interest.) Under the Berne convention, copyright is granted automatically to creative works; an author does not have to "register" or "apply for" copyright protection. As soon as the work is "fixed", that is, written or recorded on some physical medium, its author is automatically granted all exclusive rights to the work and any derivative works unless and until the author explicitly disclaims them, or until the copyright expires.

Diversion: copyright and communism

Recent history: globalisation and technological crisis

Analysis: recurring themes in the history of copyright

The history of copyright has several key themes: responses to innovations in media technologies, expansions in the definition, scope and operation of copyright, and international dissemination of the evolutions occurring in particular states.

Responses to technological innovation

The genesis of copyright can be seen as a process through which capitalist societies found a way to wed the printing press and the marketplace (see also print culture).

This commercial regulatory system, designed for the printing press, was successively expanded to include photography, phonography, film, broadcasting and photocopying (repropgraphy) as those technologies became widespread. The underlying metaphor of "literaty and artistic property", while strained at times, was able to muster sufficient institutional momentum to survive and prosper.

Expansions in scope and operation

Regulatory leadership and internationalisation


  1. Joseph Lowenstein, "The Author's Due : Printing and the Prehistory of Copyright", University of Chicago Press, 2002
  2. Christopher May, "The Venetian Moment: New Technologies, Legal Innovation and the Institutional Origins of Intellectual Property", Prometheus, 20(2), 2002.