Much of the Act was borrowed from the 1709 Statute of Anne. The first sentences of the two laws are almost identical. Both require registration in order for a work to receive copyright protection; similarly, both require that copies of the work be deposited in officially designated repositories such as the Library of Congress in the United States, and the Oxford and Cambridge universities in the United Kingdom. The Statute of Anne and the Copyright Act of 1790 both provided for an initial term of 14 years, renewable once by living authors for an additional 14 years, for works not yet published. The Statute of Anne differed from the 1790 Act, however, in providing a 21-year term of protection, with no option for renewal, for works already published at the time the law went into effect (1710).
The Copyright Act of 1790 applied exclusively to citizens of the United States. Non-citizens and material printed outside the United States could not be granted any copyright protection until the International Copyright Act of 1891. Consequently, Charles Dickens sometimes complained about cheap American knockoffs of his work for which he received no royalty. The first significant challenge to this law came in the case of Wheaton v. Peters, decided in 1834.