The Statute of Anne, the First Copyright Law

Current copyright law in the United States says, “Copyright in a work created on or after January 1, 1978, subsists from its creation and endures for a term consisting of the life of the author and 70 years after the author’s death. After a period of 95 years from the year of first publication of a work, or a period of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first, any person who obtains from the Copyright Office a certified report that the records provided by subsection (d) disclose nothing to indicate that the author of the work is living, or died less than 70 years before, is entitled to the benefit of a presumption that the author has been dead for at least 70 years. Reliance in good faith upon this presumption shall be a complete defense to any action for infringement under this title.” (U. S. Copyright) “The Constitution gives Congress the power to enact laws establishing a system of copyright in the United States. Congress enacted the first federal copyright law in May 1790, and the first work was registered within two weeks. Originally, claims were recorded by clerks of U.S. district courts. Not until 1870 were copyright functions centralized in the Library of Congress under the direction of then Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford. The Copyright Office became a separate department of the Library of Congress in 1897, and Thorvald Solberg was appointed the first Register of Copyrights.” (U. S. Copyright Office)


The Mark of the Stationers’ Company, who held a monopoly on the right to copy from 1556 until 1695. via Wikipedia

From where did this practice of ensuring intellectual property begin? The British Parliament enacted what is called “the Statute of Anne” in 1709. The actual title of the act is the Copyright Act 1709 8 Anne c.21. Its long title is 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. The act was named after Queen Anne, and it was the first copyright statute in the Great Britain. It was the world’s first full-fledged copyright statute. It was enacted in the regnal year 1709 to 1710 and entered into force on April 10, 1710.  

The statute granted publishers of books legal protection for 14 years for books printed after the statute came into place. It also granted 21 years of protection for any book already in print. At the expiration of the first 14 year copyright term the copyright re-vested in its author, if he or she were still alive, for a further term of 14 years.

“The statute determined that the ‘copy’ was the ‘sole liberty of printing and reprinting’ a book and this liberty could be infringed by any person who printed, reprinted or imported the book without consent. Those infringing copyright had to pay a fine of one penny for every sheet of the book, one moiety of which went to the author, the other to the Crown. In today’s terms this was a considerable fine. In addition the book in question was to be destroyed. Leaving in place the existing system of registration, the statute specified that action against infringement could only be brought if the title had been entered in the register at the Stationers’ Company before publication. The formal requirements of registration enabled users to locate the owners of copyrighted works. The requirement for copies of published books to be deposited in university libraries ensured that there was public access to copyrighted works.

“Authors’ rights

“The statute was the first to recognise the legal right of authorship, but it did not provide a coherent understanding of authorship or authors’ rights. While the statute established the author as legal owner, and so providing the basis for the development of authors’ copyright, it also provided a 21 year copyright term to books already in print. At the end of the 21 years granted by the statute the concept of literary property was still a booksellers’ rather than an author’ concern, as most authors continued to sell their works outright to booksellers. Given that the statute primarily intended to encourage public learning and to regulate the book trade, any benefits for authors in the statute were incidental. Throughout the 18th century, at the encouragement of the booksellers, rather than the authors, an understanding emerged that copyright originated in author’s rights to the product of his labour. Thus it was argued that the primary purpose of copyright was to protect authors’ rights, not the policy goal of encouraging public learning” (History of Information)

This is the first copyright act in the world, the British Statute of Anne, from 1710. This facsimile is taken from British Library, 8 Anne c. 19. Several monographs on copyright date this text to 1709. However, 1710 is the correct date, see John Feather, The Book Trade in Politics: The Making of the Copyright Act of 1710, “Publishing History”, 19(8), 1980, p. 39 (note 3). (Copyright History)


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About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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