A quick history of the changing lengths of copyright protection

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in November 2010

700 words / 4 min.
Since its codification in Britain in 1710, the length of copyright protection has continued to be extended, from an initial 14 years to today’s 70-120 or more years.

Note: this post is from 2010. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

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Since its codification in Britain in 1710, the length of copyright protection has continued to be extended, from an initial 14 years to today’s 70-120 or more years.

Before 1790

In Europe in the early fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as printing began to spread, copyright only existed as a monopoly granted by royalty to specific printers to cover specific works. It was not a general rule of law that covered all written work, much less all printed texts. In England in the seventeenth century, the Stationer’s Company–a private organization, albeit one with government recognition–gained the absolute right to manage and grant the right to copy printed texts. The first recognizably modern version of copyright in England, and the one to which modern American copyright can trace its roots back, was the Statute of Anne, passed by the British Parliament in 1710.

As of 1710, the Act granted monopoly rights to publishers for the period of 14 years, for the express purpose of encouraging “learned men to compose and write useful books.” This Act effectively created the legal category of the “public domain,” since once the 14 years expired, texts could be copied by anyone and belonged to no one (or to the public at large). The Lords confirmed the limited duration of copyright in Donaldson v. Beckett in 1774, a decision inherited in the United States as part of our common law (even though the Statute of Anne itself did not apply to the colonies).

1790: 28 years

In 1790 in the United States, the first Copyright Act of 1790–closely modeled on the Statute of Anne–created a copyright term of 14 years from date of recording, along with the potential for renewal by surviving authors for another 14 years. Total protection, then, consisted of a maximum of 28 years.

1831: 42 years

In 1831, a revision to the Act extended the initial potential copyright period to 28 years, with the potential to extend it for another 14. The maximum thus became 42 years.

1909: 56 years

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In 1909, Congress reformed copyright again, changing the duration to be an initial 28 years, followed by a possible extension of another 28. Total potential protection, then, was now 56 years.

1976: life + 50 or 75 years

The 1976 revision was, arguably, the most radical change to the law in 200 years. Copyright was changed to be the lifetime of an author plus 50 years, with works for hire (those that were commissioned or were produced at the behest of a corporation) protected for a total of 75 years. Fair use was codified specifically in statutory law at this time too, although the specifics of application were left to the courts. Much of the goal of this Act was to bring the United States in line with the rest of the world.

1998: life + 70 or 120/95 years

In 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act extended the length copyright again, to the life of the author plus 70 years, or, when considering corporate “authors,” 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is earlier. Additionally, this Act also covered works created in 1923 or later, applying the new durations to those works.

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