Copyright, the Constitution, and the First Congress

My Country – Copyright

On May 21, 1790, President George Washington signed the first copyright law for the new United States. Originally, each state had its own laws, except Delaware. At the Constitutional Convention, several Founding Fathers submitted proposals to allow Congress the power to grant copyright for a limited time. Therefore, the Constitution laid out the enumerated Congressional power to enact copyright laws.

The Congress shall have Power … 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.

Although not as complex on the surface as the Commerce Clause or treason, copyright has many different wrinkles that continue to baffle artists. Can I sample a portion of a song? Can I sing it live? If I put an image into this blog post, do I need to pay the creator? Can someone take what I wrote here and publish it on their own website? Nothing truly has become easy. But the one thing that has happened – the copyright term has gotten incredibly long.

The Copyright Act of 1790

The first copyright law gave an author protection for fourteen years with an option to renew for another fourteen. Additionally, it applied to maps, charts, and books. Out early laws also gave no protection to foreign authors.

By Vectorization: Clorox, Original image: Tom Bell. – Image:(C) Term by Tom Bell.gif, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Throughout Our History

Justice Douglas noted a few important changes. First, the law eventually became extended to apply to papers, periodicals, lectures, dramas, photographs, prints, paintings, movies, music, and other works of art. Additionally, foreign authors can apply based on international treaties.


I took an entire law school course in Copyright. To try to sum it all up in one paragraph seems futile. But copyright has changed dramatically since 1790. If nothing else, the term has greatly expanded. Copyright protection generally lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. If the work was a “work for hire”, then copyright persists for 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter.

In theory, works of art became part of the public domain. In other words, after you create something, others can use it for free once you have reaped sufficient rewards from your work. And honestly, that makes a lot of sense to me. But it does not make a lot of sense to Disney or other large corporations who create. In addition to trademark law, they have pushed for the extension of copyright so that you or I cannot create Mickey Mouse or Superman stories without paying the corporation.

In theory, Mickey Mouse enters the public domain in 6 years. Be prepared for a huge push in Congress to extend the laws. The amount of money tied to extending the period will turn heads. Watchdog records show that the Disney Political Action Committee (PAC) paid out a total of $149,612 in direct campaign contributions to those considering the bill in 1997. Lobbyists only spend more money today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.