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Copyright Center

Spring 2024 Feature

The World’s First Copyright Act (in the Modern Sense)




The original purpose of copyright in Victorian England was not to protect authors’ (or even publishers’) rights, but to raise revenue for the government, as well as giving them the primary power over the ability to censor literary works. Many of these restrictions were authorized by the Licensing of the Press Act in 1662, and were enforced by the Stationers’ Company, a guild of printers that was regulated by the Court of Star Chamber, that held the exclusive power to print. These stifling modes of censorship (and press restrictions) did not sit well with authors and the public alike. As such, these regulations led to widespread protests that eventually ended the reign of the censors.

The Statue of Anne, named for the reigning Queen Anne, which was passed on April 5, 1710, was a milestone in copyright law. The bill was the first of its kind, as it advocated for the protection of an author’s intellectual property by emphasizing that the author – or creator – should be the primary beneficiary of copyright law, rather than the publishers. The new bill granted a prescribed copyright term of 14 years from the inception of the law, and 21 year to any published work, that was already in print. A provision for renewal was included in its terms, during which only the author and the printer, to whom their work was licensed, held exclusive rights to publication. Should the copyright be left to expire, the work in question would then fall into the public domain.

Though the Statue of Anne would later be replaced by the Copyright Act of 1842, the law would forever more be considered a “watershed event in Anglo-American copyright history.” Within the written provisions of this statue, included a myriad of first such as copyright protections that favored authors over publishers or guilds and the legal deposit schema (and precursor, one could say, to the modern day institutional repository). This statue, also, had an influence on copyright laws that were enacted in other countries – Denmark in 1741, the United States in 1790 (and later the Chase Act nearly a hundred years later in 1891), and France in 1793 (a tous la liberté!).


References: Nineteenth-Century British and American Copyright Law by Philip V. Allingham

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