History of Copyright Law


U.S. copyright law is grounded in the Patent and Copyright clause of the United States Constitution. Over the years, courts have liberally interpreted the provisions of this clause to protect "writings" using new technologies.

In 1790, Congress enacted the first copyright act. The act has been revised many times since.

The Copyright Act of 1976: became effective January 1, 1978, and protects works created since 1978. (Works created prior to that date continue to be governed by the 1909 act.) Among other things, the 1976 Act eliminated the distinction between unpublished and published works.
In addition, it provided that copyright protection become automatically available at the time that a work is created or fixed in some tangible form.

Amendments to 1976 Act: There have been several key amendments to copyright law even since the 1976 Act. For example, in 1980, copyright protection was extended to computer programs. Copyright holders also no longer have to use the copyright symbol, "©", to protect their works.

In 1998: Copyright protection was extended from 50 to 70 years after the death of the author. For works made for hire and anonymous works, the period of copyright was extended to 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
This law, also known as the "Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act", "Sonny Bono Act", or pejoratively as the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act", effectively "froze" the advancement date of the public domain in the United States for works covered by the older fixed term copyright rules.
Under this Act, additional works made in 1923 or afterwards that were still copyrighted in 1998 will not enter the public domain until 2019 or afterward (depending on the date of the product) unless the owner of the copyright releases them into the public domain prior to expiration, or will continue to be withheld if the copyright gets extended again.

The most recent change to copyright law directly affects higher education. In the fall of 2002, Congress passed the Technology, Educational and Copyright Harmonization Act (TEACH Act). The TEACH Act revised the section of copyright law that deals with the performance and display of others' works in distance education settings and prescribes new rules for faculty members at institutions with students in remote classrooms, online courses, or other distance education settings.