Do you know why June 9 is a special day of the year for copyright history? On June 9, 1790, the Philadelphia Spelling Book, by John Barry, was registered in the U.S. District Court of Pennsylvania, making it the first item registered under the new federal law signed into existence by President George Washington just ten days earlier. Because this milestone is so important, a facsimile of the title page, now residing in the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division, is part of the U.S. Copyright Office’s Find Yourself in Copyright exhibit. The collection of artifacts in the exhibit provides a great lens to view the history of the United States from its very beginning to today.
Looking at the timeline of events, the founding fathers thought that copyright was important to include in the documents that became the U.S. Constitution. In 1787, James Madison submitted a provision to the framers to “secure to literary authors their copyrights for a limited time” that was eventually transformed into the language included in Article I, section 8, of the Constitution. This “intellectual property clause” states that Congress shall have the power 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.” If copyright was not deemed an important issue, Congress could have ignored the clause until it had more time to write a bill. It didn’t. The Copyright Act of 1790—the first U.S. federal copyright law—was signed into effect by President Washington during his first year in office. It only provided books, maps, and charts with fourteen years of protection and a renewal period of another fourteen years. Plus, there was no mention of a U.S. Copyright Office. That wouldn’t come into existence until 1870!
Over time, the list of items protected by copyright and the duration of that protection expanded. When I see the historical artifacts included in Find Yourself in Copyright, I sometimes try to think about what those items say about U.S. history: What may have been taking place in America, both good and bad, at the same time? What new scientific or technological discoveries required copyright to protect new types of works? Do the changes in coverage represent a shift in the public’s views on creators’ rights? While I do not have the answers to all of these questions, asking refreshes my perspective on Find Yourself in Copyright. It is almost like seeing the exhibit again for the first time.
If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend visiting the exhibit website or making a trip to the Copyright Office when you can to see it in person. Hopefully, you’ll do so multiple times, and one of those times you will take it in with an eye on U.S. history.
Find Yourself in Copyright explores how U.S. copyright law has evolved and how the millions of copyright claims registered with the Office illustrate the varied nature of original works. You can visit the exhibit on the fourth floor of the Library of Congress’s Madison Building. You can also explore the exhibit’s companion website.