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Promoting Progress: Celebrating the Constitution’s Intellectual Property Clause

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The following is a guest post by Catherine Zaller Rowland, Associate Register of Copyrights and Director of Public Information and Education.

Today is Constitution Day, which is a day of great celebration in copyright. In addition to all of the other treasures in the Constitution, of which there are many, our country’s founding document includes the foundation for U.S. copyright law. In article 1, section 8, clause 8, the Constitution states that Congress has the power to enact 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.” And Congress obliged, passing the first federal copyright law in 1790, updating it throughout the years to address the changing times.

But what does this Constitutional mission mean? To me, it means that copyright’s ultimate role is to encourage creativity and our flourishing national culture. Copyright accomplishes this by providing a balanced system that includes both exclusive rights and exceptions and limitations. Copyright grants a number of exclusive rights—including reproduction and distribution among others—that provide authors with the incentive to create and ability to protect their livelihoods. Simultaneously, the law protects copyright users (of which we all are) though a careful network of exceptions and limitations. If you have ever wondered how people can resell their used books or their fine art prints, that is because of the first sale doctrine (included in section 109 of the Copyright Act). Have you thought about why some parodies or satires are not copyright infringement? That is because of the integral function of fair use (found in section 107), which is based on the critical functions of the First Amendment. What about the libraries’ ability to create certain preservation and access copies? That is protected in section 108, as well as fair use.

James Madison Statue, Madison Hall, Madison Building, Library of Congress

There also are other parts of copyright law that help maintain the constitutional mission, including the importance of the public domain and the limitation of how long copyright protection can last. These are but a few examples of the copyright system at work. It is a carefully balanced set of laws that serves copyright’s Constitutional mission well.

Copyright, to me, is a friend to all authors and users. It is here to enhance our lives and experiences and to promote the progress of our nation overall. This Constitution Day, I raise a glass to copyright and echo James Madison’s views that, regarding copyright, “[t]he public good fully coincides … with the claims of individuals,” especially in light of the balanced system that exists today.


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