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Literatures in English: Copyright (History and Current Law)

This page lists sources that cover multiple periods, genres, and/or nationalities. See additional resources in the "Historical Literary Period" and "Geographical Region" pages.

Current U.S. Copyright Law

Points to Understand About Copyright and Manage Your Intellectual Property. Information and tips from the University of California to help you, as a scholar, editor, or creative writer make your work more accessible while maintaing as many of your own copyrights as possible.

University of California Copyright Education Website. More information about your rights to cite others' work as well as to maintain your own coyrights. 

Copyright and Film/Video.  

Copyright and Images.

Kozak, Ellen M. Every Writer's Guide to Copyright and Publishing Law. 3rd edition. New York: Henry Holt, 2004. Geisel Reference DESK KF 3020 .Z9 K685 2004 (1st edition, 1990, in SSHL Stacks)

Crews, Kenneth D. Copyright Law for Librarians and Educators: Creative Strategies and Practical Solutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: American Library Association, 2006. KF 2995 C74 2005 Geisel Reference + SSHL Stacks.

Russell, Carry, ed. Copyright Law: An Everyday Guide for Librarians. Chicago: American Library Association, 2004. Geisel Reference KF 2995 .C57 2004


Subject Headings

Use these official Library of Congress Subject Headings in Roger or Melvyl to discover monographs concerning literary copyright and similar topics: 

Basic Terms:


Copyright--United States--History

Broader and Related Terms:

Intellectual Property

Piracy (Copyright)--History


Book Industries and Trade--Law and Legislation

[Author name]--Relationships with Publishers 


Before the Printing Press there was no such thing as copyright. You can own a physical manuscript, but not its text or content.

1517: The printer John Rastell obtains a royal patent from Henry VIII to print an edition of a Latin grammar. By mid-century, such patents cover entire classes of books, e.g. law books. 

1530:  The Crown begins requiring the pre-publication approval and post-publication registration of every book printed in England (i.e., a mechanism for both censorship and staking a property claim on a text is established).

1557: Queen Mary grants a charter to the Stationers' Company, limiting printing in London to members of this guild. Once a printer or publisher legally acquires a manuscript and receives necessary licenses, he registers a "copy" of his printed book, giving him the exclusive right to reproduce the text. There is no such right for the author, unless he or she obtains a royal patent for a monopoly on reproducing the work--unusual except for members of the Court.

1580s-1620s. In the Golden Age of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the performing rights to a play are distinct from the stationer's right to print it. A theater company owns the exclusive right to perform a work written by one of its members, although companies might have very similar plays based on historical events and characters (e.g., Hamlet, King Richard, Falstaff).

1624: Statute of Monopolies decrees that only truly original inventions can be patented. E.g., it is no longer possible to obtain a patent to print an entire class of books, parts of the Bible, liturgies, copies of legal documents, etc.  

1695: The Licensing Act is allowed to expire, reflecting growing opposition to pre-publication licensing (censorship) and monopolies (patents).

1709: Passage of the Statute of Anne ("An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned”), which takes effect the next year. Authorial rights are established for the first time, and pre-publication government censorship is abolished.  A publisher can have exclusive right to a new work for 14 years (21 years for a book already in print), after which it reverts to the author.

1769: Millar v. Taylor. Despite the 1710 Statute, publishers have resisted the time limits, and law suits between publishers and authors and between rival publishers are frequent. The publisher Millar, who had purchased the rights to Thomson's The Seasons in 1729, sues the publisher Taylor when the latter published a new edition in 1763, even though Millar's copyright expired twenty years earlier. The Court rules in Taylor's favor, thus firming up the principle that authors have a common-law right to their intellectual property. 

1774: Donaldson v. Beckett. Just five years later, a law suit--again involving Thomson's The Seasons--must be decided by the House of Lords, which reaffirms all the provisions of the Statute of Anne, effectively abolishing publishers' belief in a perpetual right to their 'copy,' especially in works of dead canonical authors such as Shakespeare and Milton.

1787: Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution gives Congress the right to legislate laws "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.” Three years later, Congress does pass a basic copyright law, superceding any laws of the original colonies still in effect. It has a term of 14 years,  with a privilege of renewal for an additional 14-year term. Books, maps, and charts are equally protected.

Nineteenth Century.  In both the U.K. and the U.S., a series of revisions to the laws and court interpretations  gradually expand an author's period of exclusive copyright. In Britain: 1814: 28 years or the author's lifetime, whichever was longer; 1842: the longer of 42 years or the author's lifetime + 7 years. In the U.S.: 1831: 28 years with renewal for 14 more; this remained the law for the rest of the century.   

1886: The absence of protection for the copyrights of works of foreigners--e.g., the absence of protection in the U.S. for the works of British authors--leads eventually to the Berne Convention, which attempted to internationalize much of copyright law. Some of its provisions have still not been fully adopted in the U.K. and the U.S. 

1891: Chace Act (U.S.) enables a foreign author to enjoy copyright in the U.S. only if the book is printed from type set within the borders of the U.S.

Meanwhle, other laws and revisions expand the definition of an author to include corporations and other groups, and the definition of a "work" that can be copyrighted to music, photographs, drama, art and architecture, and, in the twentieth century, motion pictures, sound recordings, games, software, databases, etc.. The development of digital technologies for making 'copies' in the late twentieth century leads to frequent re-interpretaion of what is meant by 'publishing' and to the passage of new laws dealing with digital security (encription, etc.). Also, concepts such as "fair use," which allows for copying of copyrighted works in some cases, are gradually introduced and refined.

1909: In U.S., the renewal period for an author's exclusive copyright period is expanded to 28 years, i.e. copyright is for 28 years + 1 renewal of 28 more years.

1911: Author's copyright in Britain is extended to the author's lifetime plus 50 years. British legislation allows the six "copyright libraries" (British Library; Bodleian Library, Oxford; University Library, Cambridge; National Library of Wales; National Library of Scotland; and Trinity College, Dublin) to petition to receive a free copy of any book printed in the U.K.

1952, 1971: Universal Copyright Conventions in Geneva and Paris significantly update the Berne Convention; they are ratified by the U.S. in 1955 and 1974. When the U.S. in 1955 and the U.K. in 1957 ratify the 1952 conventions, for the first time works by British authors are protected in the U.S.--for a period of 28 years--regardless of where the book is manufactured.

1976: U.S. copyright term for an author is extended to the author's lifetime plus 50 years.

1998: (U.S.) The "Sonny Bono" Copyright Extension Act, after heavy lobbying by corporations such as Walt Disney (whose copyright on Mickey Mouse was due to expire in 2003), extends a U.S. author's copyright from life + 50 to life + 70 years. As the public domain shrinks, corporations achieve virtually the same monopolies granted by royal Patents in the 16th and 17th centuries and the sense of perpetual copyright held by the Stationers Company.


Selected Sources on Literary Copyright

Everton, Michael J. The Grand Chorus of Complaint: Authors and the Business Ethics of American Publishing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Particularly chapter 4, "The Moral Vernacular of American Copyright Reform," pp. 89-114.  Z 473 .E95 2011 (Annex).

Loewenstein, Joseph. The Author's Due: Printing and the Prehistory of Copyright. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Z 325 .L84 2002

McGill, Meredith. American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Particular focus on Hawthorne, Poe, and the publication in the U.S. of Dickens.

Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. KD 1300 R47 1993

Saint-Amour, Paul K. The Copyrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. PR 468 .L38 S25 2003

Seville, Catherine. Literary Copyright Reform in Early Victorian England: The Framing of the 1842 Copyright Act. (Cambridge Studies in English Legal History). NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Not at UCSD; Request from Circuit or Melvyl.