Research Handbook on the History of Copyright Law
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Research Handbook on the History of Copyright Law

Edited by Isabella Alexander and H. Tomás Gómez-Arostegui

There has been an explosion of interest in recent years regarding the origin and of intellectual property law. The study of copyright history, in particular, has grown remarkably in the last twenty years, with a flurry of activity in the last ten. Crucial to this activity has been a burgeoning focus on unpublished primary sources, enabling new and stimulating insights. This Handbook takes stock of the field of copyright history as it stands today, as well as examining potential developments in the future.
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Chapter 16: United States copyright, 1672–1909

Oren Bracha


When the American Copyright system was created in 1790 it was shaped by pre-existing institutions. There were two main antecedents. The first and most important was the British copyright tradition. Although British copyright law never applied in the American colonies, Americans were familiar with the 1710 Statute of Anne and some of the surrounding case law. The second source of influence was various colonial and state practices that were themselves local versions of the British institutions. These included sporadic colonial and state legislative grants of ad hoc exclusive printing rights and general copyright statutes legislated by the states in the 1780s. These were the building blocks out of which United States copyright would be assembled in 1790. The American British colonies that became the US had no systematic copyright protection. The British copyright regime under the 1710 Statute of Anne did not apply in the colonies; there was no local statutory copyright; and no known attempt to claim copyright under the common law was made. This is not surprising in light of the economic, social and political conditions in the colonies. The first colonial printing press arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1638. The heavy involvement of Harvard College and the colony’s authorities in its operation entailed both official sponsorship and supervision. Other colonies, where the printing press arrived in later times during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, developed their own combinations of support and restriction.

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