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Pre-modern Copyright

The current copyright system is the third system of copyright to be established.

1469, IT: The first system of copyright was justified on the basis of Royal Prerogative. The monarch claimed the right to grant monopoly printing privileges at their discretion, often in return for a fee.

1557, UK: The second system of copyright, and that from which the term 'copyright' originates, was initially again justified on the basis of Royal Prerogative. It was implemented for the purpose of censorship, or preventing "seditious and heretical" material. By royal decree, the Stationers' Company was granted a monopoly on printing, and charged with censoring material disparaging of the monarch or church.

1641, UK: With belief in Royal Prerogative waning, and the rise of parliamentary power, the monarch's instutions the Star Chamber and High Commission were abolished, and with them the Stationers' monopoly. Not much later, however, the Stationers' monopoly was reinstated by act of Parliament, to censor material disparaging of Parliament.

1694, UK: Protest against censorship eventually led to perminant abolishment of the second system of copyright.

The Development of Modern Copyright

1710, UK: The third and current system of copyright began with the Statute of Anne. It was justified on the basis of encouraging works, as reflected in its long title "An Act for the encouragement of learning, by vesting the copies of printed books in the authors or purchasers of such copies" (British Copyright Act, 1709). It was enacted following extensive lobbying by the Stationers' Company.

1769, UK: In Millar v Taylor, it was ruled that Common Law had provided perpetual copyright prior to the Statute of Anne. The presiding judge in this case was a former lawyer for the Stationers' Company.

1773, UK: In Hinton v. Donaldson, it was ruled that copyright has no basis in Common Law.

1774, UK: In Donaldson v Beckett, the UK House of Lords ruled that copyright has no basis in Common Law.

1787, US: The copyright clause of the Constitution of the United States of America reflects the same goal as the Statue of Anne: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." (US Constitution, art. I, sec. 8, cl. 8) This clause, like that granting a right to collect taxes, is part of the section of enumerated powers of Congress. It is a power of the federal government justified on the basis of democracy, intended to further the greater good.

1831, US: The USA federal copyright term was extended for the first time.

1834, US: In Wheaton v. Peters, the USA Supreme Court ruled that copyright has no basis in Common Law.

Copyright Comes to be Seen as a Moral Right

1886: The "Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works" internationalised copyright. Before this time, copyright was, for the most part, granted by individual countries only to their own citizens. The Convention uses the term 'pirate' to refer to copyright infringement (the term had already long been in use, but not in such an official context).

1948: The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes copyright in Article 27(2).

Copyright Begins Restricting Personal Liberty

1980s, UK: A copyright industry campaign features the slogan "Home Taping Is Killing Music".

1982, US: The President of the MPAA testified before Congress "(...) the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."

1998, US: The USA copyright term is again extended, despite numerous prominant economists finding it highly unlikely to bring any economic benefit.

2003, US: In Eldred v. Ashcroft it was ruled that the requirement in the Constitution that copyright be "for limited Times" does not preclude Congress continually increasing the copyright term so that no limit is ever actually reached.

2011, NZ: New Zealand and USA secret services and armed police collaborate in an operation involving spying, raiding, and seizing of property, later found to be illegal. The operation was carried out at the request of the Recording Industry Association of America, in order to look for evidence of alleged copyright infringement. Video footage of the raid seized by New Zealand Police is later claimed to have been accidentally destroyed.

Royal Prerogative, once seen as a powerful justification for copyright, no longer carries much weight, but the idea that thoughts and expressions can be owned has risen to take its place.


  • British Copyright Act (1709), 8 Anne, c 19
  • United States Constitution
  • Van Houweling, Molly Shaffer (2008) The New Servitudes. Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 96, p. 885.

See also