A Brief History of Copyright Law

copyright history

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The concept of copyright has been around for a long time despite being introduced into legislation in the United States in 1831.

In 1575 Queen Elizabeth first doled out a patent on music printing to a composer who wrote mostly for the church, Thomas Tallis.

In 1777 the French introduced the concept of performing rights and founded their version of ASCAP shortly thereafter in 1829.  Also in the 1770’s, music printing started to arrive in the colonies, and by the early 1800’s more than 10,000 pieces of music were being printed by U.S. music publishers.

Though copyright has existed in other countries for some time and was introduced in the US in 1790 for things like maps and books, the United States did not include musical works in it’s federal law until 1831 during a revision of the original copyright act.

The original term of copyright was 28 years plus a renewal period of 14 years.

Since popular music was spread mostly by word of mouth and traveling minstrels in the mid to late 1800’s, copy protection was largely ignored.  Most minstrels wrote their own music or had music written for them.

In fact, Stephen Foster, who wrote songs like “Camptown Races” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” was the first songwriter to try and make a living as a songwriter but lived mostly in poverty as royalty rates were nominal and copyright enforcement was almost non-existent.

It wasn’t until 1893 when the song “After The Ball” sold one million copies of sheet music that the profound impact copyright had on the value of music publishing was noticed.  “After The Ball” went on to sell over 10 million copies and people with keen business sense started to take closer notice of music ownership as a revenue stream.

This lead to a boom of music publishers in New York City in the early 1900‘s in an area now known as Tin Pan Alley.  Song plugging was also born – the new business model in which a piano player was employed in music stores to help promote music sales.  Tin Pan Alley created music to the tune of 25,000 songs per year.

In 1914 ASCAP was formed in the United States to help rectify poor recognition of international copyright protection and the 1909 copyright act.  The 1909 copyright act was important mostly because it extended copyright life to 28 years plus a renewal term of 28 years.

A major copyright revision wasn’t seen again until 1976 and was drastically needed.   Technology had changed the face of the music industry in both creation and copying of works, infringement needed to be clearly defined, and the U.S. needed to address the Berne Convention (an international treaty which recognized copyright between sovereign nations).  Even though the US did not become a Berne signatory until 1988, U.S. copyright law was still updated to reflect international terms.

The biggest changes that came about in 1976 were extension of copyright life to life of the author plus 50 years, and the infamous Fair Use and First Sale doctrines.  The Fair Use doctrine was as such:

In 1998 life of copyright was extended again as president Clinton signed The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.  The life of copyright grew to life of the author plus 70 years.  It also brought about the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act).

Today copyright remains a crucial part of entertainment economics.  If you’d like to read more about copyright, check out the Library of Congress website.

Andy Lykens is a music branding and marketing specialist for Imagem Music, the world’s largest independent music publisher. Follow him here.


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