The 18th Century

Highlight: Congress Passes the First Copyright Act


On May 31, 1790, the first copyright law is enacted under the new United States Constitution. Modeled off Britain’s Statute of Anne, the new law is relatively limited in scope, protecting books, maps, and charts for only 14 years with a renewal period of another 14 years. There was no Library of Congress or Copyright Office at the time, so works had to be registered in the United States District Court where the author or proprietor lived.


The 1790 Act was amended by Congress many times over the next century. These amendments greatly changed what works were covered under copyright, for how long, and how to register a work. Important changes include:



  • Extending the initial period of protection from 14 years to 28 years (1831)
  • Expanding copyrightable works. Through amendment, Congress added the following categories to protectable works:
    • “Historical and other prints” (1802)
    • Dramatic works (1856)
    • Photographs (1865)
    • Visual art (1870)
  • Expanding the exclusive rights of authors to include:
    • the right of public performance for dramatic works (1856) and musical compositions (1897)
    • the right to create derivative works (1870)
  • Changing process for gaining copyright protection by:
    • Requiring copyright owners to include a prescribed notice on every copy distributed to the public (1802)
    • Requiring recordation of copyright assignments (1834)
    • Relocating and centralizing all copyright activities from the U.S. District Courts to the Library of Congress (1870) and further into the Copyright Office (1897)
  • Establishing copyright relations with foreign countries (1891)
  • Prohibiting copyright protection in United States government publications (1895)