U.S. Copyright Beginnings

In 1787, James Madison submitted a provision to the Framers of the U.S. Constitution to "secure to literary authors their copyrights for a limited time." This was a precursor to the language eventually included in Article I, section 8, which states that Congress shall have the power 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." Known as the "intellectual property clause," this language addressed both patents and copyright. Interestingly, as noted by the Supreme Court, in eighteenth-century usage, the reference to "science" actually relates to knowledge and copyright, and the reference to "useful arts" relates to inventions and patents.

Congress implemented the intellectual property clause swiftly, passing the Copyright Act of 1790, the first federal copyright law, which George Washington signed into law on May 31, 1790. This law was limited in scope, protecting only books, maps, and charts for fourteen years with a renewal period of another fourteen years. The law did not establish a copyright office or a centralized place to administer copyright claims. Instead, it directed authors and proprietors to register works at the U.S. district court where they resided.

Learn More

John Barry. The Philadelphia Spelling Book: Arranged upon a Plan Entirely New, Adapted to the Capacities of Children . . . to Expedite the Instruction of Youth. Philadelphia: Printed by Joseph James, 1790. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

First Work Registered

It didn’t take long for people to start registering their copyright claims. On June 9, 1790, John Barry, schoolmaster of the Free School of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, registered the Philadelphia Spelling Book with the U.S. District Court of Philadelphia. It was the first work registered under the new federal law.

While no complete copy of the book exists today, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress has the printed title page shown here and two pages of text that Barry originally deposited.

Learn More

Abraham Bradley. Map of the United States, Exhibiting Post Roads & Distances: The First Sheet Comprehending the Nine Northern States, with Parts of Virginia and the Territory North of Ohio. Philadelphia: Abraham Bradley Jr., 1796. Hand-colored map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Mapping a New Nation

As one of the original types of works protected by federal copyright law, maps have a long history in the registration records. In 1791, lawyer and topographer Abraham Bradley Jr. was hired as a clerk in the General Post Office. Bradley, an authority on postal routes and schedules, began creating detailed maps of the country.

This hand-colored map, depicting the post roads of the northeast states, is one of the earliest sections of Bradley’s map series that hung in post offices across the country. His maps showed the breadth of the new nation to many citizens for the first time.

These and other early maps conveyed facts that laid the foundation for later cartographic efforts in other fields, and they are still being used by researchers in georeferencing efforts today.

Learn More