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The First Copyright Law of the United States of America

Enacted during the second session of the First Congress on May 31, 1790

signed by President George Washington

This series reprints for your examination the actual copyright laws of the United States through 1909. In order to ascertain whether someone back then "stole" or "plagiarized" from others, one has to determine what was considered "stealing" and what was not. While a copyrighted book might be able to be stolen, a book already in the public domain could not be.

A brief discussion and summary follows the law below.

We have highlighted in yellow the pertinent portions of the law. To remove this highlighting, click .

AN ACT for the encouragement of learning, by securing the copies of maps, charts, and books, to the authors and proprietors of such copies, during the times therein mentioned.

SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the passing of this act, the author and authors of any map, chart, book or books already printed within these United States, being a citizen or citizens thereof, or resident within the same, his or their executors, administrators or assigns, who hath or have not transferred to any other person the copyright of such map, chart, book or books, share or shares thereof; and any other person or persons, being a citizen or citizens of these United States, or residents therein, his or their executors, administrators or assigns, who hath or have purchased or legally acquired the copyright of any such map, chart, book or books, in order to print, reprint, publish or vend the same, shall have the sole right and liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending such map, chart, book or books, for the term of fourteen years from the recording the title thereof in the clerk's office, as is herein after directed: And that the author and authors of any map, chart, book or books already made and composed, and not printed or published, or that shall hereafter be made and composed, being a citizen or citizens of these United States, or resident therein, and his or their executors, administrators or assigns, shall have the sole right and liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending such map, chart, book or books, for the like term of fourteen years from the time of recording the title thereof in the clerk's office as aforesaid. And if, at the expiration of the said term, the author or authors, or any of them, be living, and a citizen or citizens of these United States, or resident therein, the same exclusive right shall be continued to him or them, his or their executors, administrators or assigns, for the further term of fourteen years: Provided, he or they shall cause the title thereof to be a second time recorded and published in the same manner as is herein after directed, and that within six months before the expiration of the first term of fourteen years aforesaid.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That if any other person or persons, from and after the recording the title of any map, chart, book or books, and publishing the same as aforesaid, and within the times limited and granted by this act, shall print, reprint, publish, or import, or cause to be printed, reprinted, published, or imported from any foreign Kingdom or State, any copy or copies of such map, chart, book or books, without the consent of the author or proprietor thereof, first had and obtained in writing, signed in the presence of two or more credible witnesses; or knowing the same to be so printed, reprinted, or imported, shall publish, sell, or expose to sale, or cause to be published, sold, or exposed to sale, any copy of such map, chart, book or books, without such consent first had and obtained writing as aforesaid, then such offender or offenders shall forfeit all and every copy and copies of such map, chart, book or books, and all and every sheet and sheets, being part of the same, or either of them, to the author or proprietor of such map, chart, book or books, who shall forthwith destroy the same: And every such offender and offenders shall also forfeit and pay the sum of fifty cents for every sheet which shall be found in his or their possession, either printed or printing, published, imported or exposed to sale, contrary to the true intent and meaning of this act, the one moiety thereof to the author or proprietor of such map, chart, book or books who shall sue for the same, and the other moiety thereof to and for the use of the United States, to be recovered by action of debt in any court of record in the United States, wherein the same is cognizable. Provided always, That such action be commenced within one year after the cause of action shall arise, and not afterwards.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That no person shall be entitled to the benefit of this act, in cases where any map, chart, book or books, hath or have been already printed and published, unless he shall first deposit, and in all other cases, unless he shall before publication deposit a printed copy of the title of such map, chart, book or books, in the clerk's office of the district court where the author or proprietor shall reside: And the clerk of such court is hereby directed and required to record the same forthwith, in a book to be kept by him for that purpose, in the words following, (giving a copy thereof to the said author or proprietor, under the seal of the court, if he shall require the same). "District of _________________ to wit: Be it remembered, that on the _________________ day of _________________ in the _________________ year of the independence of the United States of America, A. B. of the said district, hath deposited in this office the title of a map, chart, book or books, (as the case may be) the right whereof he claims as author or proprietor, (as the case may be) in the words following, to wit: [here insert the title] in conformity to the act of the Congress of the United States, intituled 'An act for the encouragement of learning, by securing the copies of maps, charts, and books, to the authors and proprietors of such copies, during the times therein mentioned.' C. D. clerk of the district of _________________." For which the said clerk shall be entitled to receive sixty cents from the said author or proprietor, and sixty cents for every copy under seal actually given to such author or proprietor as aforesaid. And such author or proprietor shall, within two months from the date thereof, cause a copy of the said record to be published in one or more of the newspapers printed in the United States, for the space of four weeks.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That the author or proprietor of any such map, chart, book or books, shall, within six months after the publishing thereof, deliver, or cause to be delivered to the Secretary of State a copy of the same, to be preserved in his office.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That nothing in this act shall be construed to extend to prohibit the importation or vending, reprinting or publishing within the United States, of any map, chart, book or books, written, printed, or published by any person not a citizen of the United States, in foreign parts or places without the jurisdiction of the United States.

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That any person or persons who shall print or publish any manuscript, without the consent and approbation of the author or proprietor thereof, first had and obtained as aforesaid, (if such author or proprietor be a citizen of or resident in these United States) shall be liable to suffer and pay to the said author or proprietor all damages occasioned by such injury, to be recovered by a special action on the case founded upon this act, in any court having cognizance thereof.

SEC. 7. And be it further enacted, That if any person or persons shall be sued or prosecuted for any matter, act or thing done under or by virtue of this act, he or they may plead the general issue, and give the special matter in evidence.

We glean the following points from the Copyright Act of 1790, the very first copyright law in the United States:

  1. This law explicitly grants copyright protection for books in their entirety, not for every last sentence in a book.
  2. Thus the inclusion of some wording, or the publishing of adaptations, translations, or other derivative works by others was not explicitly prohibited.
  3. Pictures at this point have no copyright protection.
  4. This law explicitly excludes from protection books written or printed or published outside the U.S. by non-U.S. citizens.
  5. Copyright protection was for a term of 14 years, and could be extended for an additional 14 years if the author was still living at the end of the initial term.
  6. A specific procedure had to be followed, or there was no copyright protection.
  7. The statute of limitations for copyright infringement was but one year.

We see, therefore, that this copyright law placed a lot of books in the public domain. These books were thus considered fair game for utilization by future authors, and could even be legally reprinted in their entirety by anyone and everyone.

Moreover, some wording and sequence of topics from even books that were under copyright could be used by another author without there being any violation of ethical standards.


The above page was found at https://www.TruthOrFables.net/copyright_law_us_1790.htm on April 20, 2024.

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