Copyright and the Making of a Nation: The Transfer of Copyright Law from England to the U.S.


On January 7th, 1783, the artist John Trumbull, also known as the “Painter of the Revolution,” addressed the American public in an open letter in the Connecticut Courant. He stressed the significance of literary property to reward American authors for their time and effort when creating works of art, in part because a “literary reputation is necessary to complete [America’s] national character” in order to unite its citizens. In the first State of the Union on January 8th, 1790, President Washington weighed in on the copyright debate, proposing that public happiness was to be achieved through the promotion of science and literature. This would also enable people to know and value their Constitutional rights.

Washington reasserted the importance of Intellectual Property Clause in the U.S. Constitution. This Clause, pursuing advancement of knowledge, laid the foundation for federal copyright law in the U.S., which in turn was heavily influenced by English copyright law. Within seven years, Trumbull and Washington, along with other important politicians and literary figures such as James Madison and Noah Webster, proposed legislation on copyright. Why did these men think copyright law was important to the building of the early American republic? Furthermore, why was early U.S. copyright law based on English law at a time the Americans wished to use it to create a national identity distinct from their former colonial masters? As Washington had argued, the value of copyright lay and still lies in its capability to advance knowledge. The early American republic was in dire need to advance the creation of a national identity by American authors in order to distinguish itself from England.

This project chronicles the historical process of enacting U.S. copyright law from 1783 until 1834. It challenges current understandings of the origins of U.S. copyright law and argues it was used to create a distinct American identity. The foundations of U.S. copyright law are wholly English, mainly based on the 1710 Statute of Anne, the first law to extend copyright protection to authors. While the English foundations of federal copyright law are well-documented, literature has overlooked the influence of state copyright statutes. With the exception of Delaware, all states adopted copyright statutes between 1783 and 1786, all based on the English Statute of Anne. The Framers of the Constitution, with the aim of advancing knowledge among the American republic, created a uniform body of copyright law on a federal level, simultaneously constructing a quintessential American identity. However, between 1783 and 1834, state legislators and Congress via statutory law, and courts via case law, continuously transferred copyright law from England to the U.S. Thus, early U.S. copyright law relied heavily on English copyright law to protect and advance knowledge in the process of creating a national identity

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