Making Sense of Copyright

This is an assignment designed for my American Government students. This activity uses the history of copyright laws to give them practice in distinguishing between the publicly stated purpose of a law and its actual intent based on who sponsors and supports its passage, with the ultimate goal of teaching them how to critically analyze the actions of Congress and interest groups.  There are three main points I would like them to take from this lesson and the class discussion that accompanies it:

  1. Laws that made sense when they were written often outlast their usefulness.
  2. Those who gain economic benefits from a law will fight to keep it even if its purpose has been rendered obsolete.
  3. To know who will truly benefit from a law, pay attention to who is promoting it to Congress or pushing for its passage.

Directions: Use the timeline, including the links from it to additional information, to respond to the questions below. You will need to conduct additional research to find some of the information. Include links to websites you found useful in your response.

Timeline of Copyright Protection

  • 1439: Johannes Gutenberg introduces the printing press to Europe.
  • 1557: Queen Mary of England grants a royal charter to the Stationers’ Company of London.
  • 1710: Statute of Anne creates the world’s first copyright law in England
  • 1783: The Connecticut General Assembly enacts the first copyright law in the U.S. Most states adopt similar statutes.
  • 1790: The Copyright Act of 1790, based on the Statute of Anne, is passed by Congress.
  • 1802: Prints are added to the list of materials protected under the 1790 law.
  • 1831: The Copyright Act of 1831 extends to period of protection from 14 to 28 years and adds musical compositions protected material.
  • 1851: Dramatic works are added to the list of protected material.
  • 1865: Photographs are added to the list of protected material.
  • 1886: The Berne Convention is created to protect copyrights internationally.
  • 1891: The Chase International Copyright Act grants protection to foreign authors, but requires that the publication of such material take place in the United States and meet U.S. copyright requirements.
  • 1909: The Copyright Act of 1909 extends the renewal period to 28 years and extended protection to sound recordings.
  • 1912: Motion pictures are granted protection.
  • 1976: Copyright protection is extended to include the life of the author/creator plus 50 years.
  • 1988: The Berne Implementation Act revises U.S. copyright law to align it with the Berne Convention, allowing the U.S. to join the agreement.
  • 1998: The Copyright Term Extension Act is passed that extended protection of material for the life of the author/creator to life plus 70 years.

Respond to the following questions using the timeline and links provided, as well as linking your responses to any other websites you used to find information. Note that some of the links above have information on multiple items in the timeline.

  1. Define the term copyright. What was goal of the first copyright law?
  2. What were the terms of the first U.S. copyright law?
  3. Why did the United States not join the Berne Convention until 1989?
  4. Choose at least 2 of the U.S. laws listed in the timeline and research what groups or individuals promoted them or pushed for them. What does that tell you about who would reap the most benefit from these laws? Include links to the information you found, if it is in addition to that supplied in this assignment.
  5. Why was a copyright beneficial to the author as well as the publisher in the past? What has changed that may make it less beneficial to the author now?
  6. Should copyright protection be changed? In what ways and why?


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4 thoughts on “Making Sense of Copyright

  1. An additional way to frame the idea of copyright change is to have people imagine a rollback to a particular earlier time and consider how the law would and wouldn’t work today…

    I’m pasting here a comment I just made on Rachael’s site because it has some relevance here too, I think, at least as a point to ponder:

    I am often struck by how the copyright debate(s) demonstrate how complicated our understanding of self-interest is…and in a way that parallels political engagement and voting. Many people who don’t benefit from the current system, or who struggle mightily in it, are still deeply reluctant to even consider that there might be other/better ways. I wonder if—in the same way that lower-income brackets often support policies that only benefit brackets significantly higher than their own—this is a kind of reflection of aspiration, that rather than considering their self-interest they are instead thinking more about dreams of what their future self might be?

  2. Pretty cool that you decided to make it into a lesson. Your questions are well thought out. I like number 4 to get students looking at who is the people who are behind laws. That is an important skill nowadays to know who is saying what and what their ulterior motive may be.

  3. I really appreciate you formatting here, and making it relevant to your context by making it into an assignment. Do you think you will be able to use this with your future students?

    The Chase International Copyright Act, was a piece that I left out. However, it seems important to include to give a broader picture of how U.S. copyright also affects people from other countries as well.

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