Copyright Law & History

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to enact laws establishing a system of copyright
in the United States:

“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.”

(U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8)


Congress enacted the first federal copyright law in May 1790 and the first work was registered within two weeks. Originally, claims were recorded by clerks of U.S. District Courts.

In 1870 Congress passed a law that centralized the copyright system in the Library of Congress and required all authors to deposit two copies of every book, pamphlet, map, print, and piece of music registered in the United States.

    • June 9, 1790 the first copyright entry, “The Philadelphia Spelling Book” by John Barry, was registered in the U.S. District Court of Pennsylvania.
    • Approximately 150,000 copyright registrations from 1790 through 1870 were registered in the office of the clerk of each U.S. district court.
    • Since 1870, the U.S. Copyright Office has registered nearly 34 million claims to copyright.
    • The Copyright Office became a separate department of the Library of Congress in 1897.
    • Today, federal copyright registration is handled by the U.S. Copyright Office, a division of the
      Library of Congress.


The Copyright Law

U.S. federal copyright laws are codified in chapters 1 through 8 and 10 through 12 of Title 17, U.S. Code.

The Copyright Act of 1976, which provides the basic framework for the current copyright law, was enacted on October 19, 1976, as Pub. L. No. 94-553, 90 Stat. 2541.


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