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Timeline of Copyright Milestones

The files on record for U.S. Copyright Law are many. Here is a list of milestones throughout recent history.

  • Early History

    A scribe.Books produced before the 15th century were primarily handwritten and very expensive. Neither the book nor the author was legally protected.

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  • 15th Century

    A man looking down.By the mid-15 century, Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press revolutionized the world, making the printed word accessible to the literate public.

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  • The Licensing Act of 1662

    A man using a printing press.As the number of presses grew, authorities in England sought to control the publication of books. This act established a register of licensed books and introduced a requirement to deposit a copy of the book to be licensed. Deposit was administered by the Stationers' Company, which was given power to seize books suspected of containing material hostile to the Church or Government. The 1662 act lapsed in 1695 leading to a relaxation of government censorship.

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  • Statute of Anne April 10, 1710

    Anne, Queen of EnglandBritish Parliament passed the first law recognizing the rights of authors. This act established the principles of authors' ownership of copyright and prevented a monopoly on the part of the booksellers. It also created a "public domain" for literature by limiting terms of copyright and by ensuring that once a work was purchased the copyright owner no longer had control over its use.

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  • January 8, 1783

    Dr. Noah WebsterConnecticut became the first state to pass a copyright statute, entitled "An Act for the Encouragement of Literature and Genius". It was enacted due to the advocacy of Dr. Noah Webster.

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  • August 18, 1787

    President James MadisonJames Madison submitted to the framers of the Constitution a provision "to secure to literary authors their copyrights for a limited time."

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  • June 23, 1789

    A man.The first federal bill relating to copyrights (H.R. 10) was presented to the first Congress.

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  • May 31, 1790

    President George WashingtonPresident George Washington signed the first copyright bill into law under the new U.S. Constitution. Books, maps, and charts were protected for a term of 14 years, with the privilege of renewal for another 14 years. Copyright registration was made in the U.S. District Court where the author or proprietor resided.

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  • June 9, 1790

    The Philadelphia Spelling BookJohn Barry's "The Philadelphia Spelling Book" became the first work registered under the federal copyright act. It was registered in the U.S. District Court of Pennsylvania.

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  • April 29, 1802

    Navy YardThe Copyright Act was amended to extend protection to "historical and other prints" and to require that copyright notices be printed on protected works.

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  • February 3, 1831

    A sheet of music.The first comprehensive revision of the copyright protected musical compositions, extended the term of copyright to 28 years plus, and allowed a 14 year renewal term.

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  • August 18, 1856

    A man.Copyright protection was given to dramatic works.

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  • March 3, 1865

    A man and horse.Photographs and photographic negatives were added to the list of works protected by copyright.

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  • July 8, 1870

    A sheet of Copyright Law.This date marks the second general revision of the copyright law. Works of art were added to the list of protected works. Copyright activities, including deposit and registration, were centralized in the Library of Congress. Authors were given the right to dramatize or to translate their own works. Indexing of the record of registrations began.

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  • March 3, 1891

    A sheet of the International Copyright Act.The International Copyright Act was signed into law. It was the first U.S. copyright law that authorized establishment of copyright relations with foreign countries. The first foreign work registered under this act was, a play called Saints and Sinners by British author Henry Arthur Jones.

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  • 1894 Record of a Sneeze

    A man sneezing.The first motion pictures were deposited for copyright in 1893. The earliest copyrighted film that still survives is Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894. Also known as Fred Ott's Sneeze, the film records Fred Ott, an Edison employee, sneezing comically for the camera. This motion picture was not submitted to the Copyright Office on celluloid film, but rather as a series of positive photographic prints.

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  • January 12, 1895

    President Grover ClevelandPresident Grover Cleveland signed the Printing Act of 1895, centralizing the printing of government documents in the Government Printing Office and prohibiting the copyrighting of any Government publication.

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  • January 6, 1897

    The U.S. FlagThe Act of January 6, 1897 protected music against unauthorized public performance. The purpose of this act was to prohibit copyrighted materials from public performance without consent.

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  • February 19, 1897

    A desk.The Copyright Office is established as a separate department of the Library of Congress and the position of Register of Copyrights is created.

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  • July 1, 1909

    A sheet of the third general revision of Copyright Law.The third general revision of the copyright act became effective on July 1, 1909. This law broadens the subject matter of copyright to include "all the writings of an author" and extends the renewal term from 14 to 28 years.

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  • August 24, 1912

    Two men talking.The Townsend Amendment of 1912 results in motion pictures, previously registered as photographs, being specifically added to the categories of protected works.

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  • July 13, 1914

    President Woodrow WilsonPresident Wilson proclaimed U.S. adherence to the Buenos Aires Copyright Convention of 1910, establishing convention protection between the United States and certain Latin American nations.

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  • January 1, 1953

    A man yelling.Recording and performing rights are extended to nondramatic literary works. These would include poetry, novels, and textbooks.

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  • September 16, 1955

    President Dwight EisenhowserThis marks the effective date that the U.S. became a member nation of the Universal Copyright Convention, as signed at Geneva, Switzerland on September 6, 1952. Dwight Eisenhower was president during this time.

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  • September 19, 1962

    President John F. KennedyBeginning in 1962, Congress enacted the first of a series of nine special acts extending the renewal term for existing works. The effect of these laws was to extend to December 31, 1976, the renewal term of all works scheduled to expire between September 19, 1962, and December 31, 1976. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were presidents during this time.

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  • February 15, 1972

    Beaux Arts TrioThis marks the effective date of an act extending limited copyright protection to sound recordings fixed and first published on or after this date. Richard Nixon was president during this time.

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  • October 19, 1976

    SupermanPresident Ford signed the fourth general revision of the copyright law.

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  • January 1, 1978

    The cover of the 1978 Annual Report of the Librarian of CongressThis marks the effective date of principal provisions of the 1976 copyright law. The term of protection for works created on or after this date consists of the life of the author and 50 years after the author's death. Numerous other provisions modernized the law.

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  • December 12, 1980

    A man using the ENIAC computer.The copyright law was amended regarding computer programs. The Computer Software Act of 1980 defines computer programs and clarifies the extent of protection afforded computer software.

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  • March 1, 1989

    A map of Germany.United States adhered to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

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  • December 1, 1990

    A house.The Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act was passed, providing copyright protection for architectural works.

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  • June 26, 1992

    A woman working at the Copyright Office.Renewal registration became optional. Works copyrighted between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977 were automatically renewed even if registration not made.

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  • October 27, 1998

    The cover of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extention ActThe Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended the term of copyright protection for most works to the life of the author plus 70 years after the author's death.

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  • October 28, 1998

    President Bill ClintonOn this date, President Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, designed to implement the treaties signed in December 1996 at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Geneva conference. Highlights of the act include: limiting certain online infringement liability for Internet service providers; creating an exemption permitting a temporary reproduction of a computer program made by activating a computer in the course of maintenance or repair; clarifying the policy role of the Copyright Office; and creating a form of protection for vessel hulls.

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  • November 2, 2002

    President George W. BushThe Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act of 2002 provided for the use of copyrighted works by accredited nonprofit educational institutions in distance education. President Bush signed this act into law.

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  • Copyright Today

    U.S. Copyright logoFor more information, explore the United States Copyright Office Web site Additional historical information is available at:
    http://www.copyright.gov/history

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