Copyright Act of 1790

Copyright Act of 1790

The Copyright Act of 1790 was the first federal copyright act to be instituted in the United States, though most of the states had passed various legislation securing copyrights in the years immediately following the Revolutionary War. The stated object of the act was the "encouragement of learning," and it achieved this by securing authors the "sole right and liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending" the copies of their "maps, charts, and books" for a term of 14 years, with the right to renew for one additional 14 year term should the copyright holder still be alive.


The Copyright Act of 1790 was deliberated on and passed during the Second Session of Congress, convened on January 4 1790. The bill was signed into law on May 31 1790 by George Washington, and published in its entirety throughout the country shortly after. At only half a page in the Columbia Centinel , a Boston newspaper of the day, the law was considerably shorter than current statutes, which, as of 2003, totalled some 279 pages. The law covered only books, maps, and charts; paintings, drawings, and music were not included until later.

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.

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