Protection of rights in literary property did not appear necessary in Europe prior to the invention of printing from movable type in the 15th cent. The sovereign asserted control over printing by issuing patents or privileges to individuals or by organizing publishers' guilds with monopoly rights. Through such devices, the state was able to censor heresy and sedition, while at the same time fostering literature. The only protection that the common law extended to the author was against publication of the work without permission; once publication was allowed, the work passed completely out of the author's control.
The first English copyright act (1710), while maintaining the common-law right, allowed the author to copyright a work for 14 years (with a like period of renewal); it also required deposition of copies and a notice that the work was copyrighted. That law was the model for the earliest American copyright statute, passed in 1790. Wheaton v. Peters (1834; see Henry Wheaton) established that copyright exists primarily for the public benefit rather than for the creator of the work. The current copyright statute was enacted in 1976 and became effective in 1978, superseding an act of 1909. There have been significant amendments enacted since then, including a 1988 law that implemented the United State's accession to the Bern Convention and a 1994 law that implemented changes that resulted from the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which established the World Trade Organization). In most cases, the law provides copyright for the duration of the author's life plus 70 years.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.