All Things Writing

Talking Copyright: Its History and Today. Do you need it, do you want it, do you have it already?

January 24, 2021 Bryan the Writer Season 2 Episode 3
All Things Writing
Talking Copyright: Its History and Today. Do you need it, do you want it, do you have it already?
Show Notes Transcript

I know copyright doesn't sound like and interesting topic for a podcast. But there is more than meets the eye in terms of history where copyright is concerned. Plus you get to hear me do my best British accent.

For more info about copyright and its implications, check out these resources.

Wikipedia has, at least as of this recording, a pretty good page on the issue.

The U.S. Copyright office has an excellent page dedicated to the history as it pertains to U.S. law. You can also find the current version of Title 17, which I reference in the show.

This is the site where you can see The Treaty of Anne. It is worth reading if you really want to see where we get some of our legal concepts of what copyright should look like.

As always, thank you for joining me! If you would like more information on how you can be a show sponsor, or just want to reach out and say hello. Click here and send me a message. 

Support the show (

Welcome to the show, this is all things writing. As was previously stated, I am your host Brian the writer and I am excited about today show, although I probably shouldn’t be.

Now you’re going to be asking yourself why is that possible. Well, the simple answer is that how can anyone get excited about the topic that we are discussing today?

And I’ll tell you at first the topic doesn’t seem terribly exciting until you realize that there is so much more behind it than meets the eye. Thank you for joining me today and if you like anything you here and you enjoy the program, please smash that like button for me and consider donating to the show. For those of you have, it is greatly appreciated.

Today were in a talk about copyrights, what are they, why are they, how do you get one, do you even need one? All these answers I am hoping to address today.

Of course I’m talking about the copyright as it pertains to that funny little symbols you see at the end of some names. For example, if you open up any book you’re going to turn to the copyright page. You expected to be there, you wanted to be there, and you have no idea what it means. That’s another thing were to talk about a little bit.

I’m about to do something that’s a little bit out of character for me, I’m going to read you something verbatim. This comes directly from the US copyright office and its contained on a website entitled a brief history of copyright in the United States. And I quote, “In 1790, the Constitution enshrined in American law the principle that an author of a work may reap the fruits of his or her intellectual creativity for a limited amount of time. Copyright protects through law original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations. Today, copyright provides to an author the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute his or her work. The also provides, in the case of certain works, a right to publicly perform or display the work; in the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission. The author may also grant to others a license to engage in these activities. The author, however, may not bar anyone from using an idea, procedure, process, slogan, principle, or discovery.”


“On May 31, 1790, the first copyright law is enacted under the new United States Constitution. Modeled off Britain’s Statute of Anne, the new law is relatively limited in scope, protecting books, maps, and charts for only fourteen years with a renewal period of another fourteen years. There was no Library of Congress or Copyright Office at the time, so works had to be registered in the U.S. District Court where the author or proprietor lived.”


But I think it is important that we point out Copyright, as we understand it is not something that is unique to America. Just as the Constitution of the united states and the bill of rights derived many of its structure from their foreign forbearers, our copyright laws also pulled.

When we talk about coywrite, we are actually talking about three different things. We are talking about the moral rights of the author who created a work, the economic rights of a benefactor who paid to have a copy made (remember that publishers, and sometimes editors, will have a fiduciary claim to the work), the property rights of the individual owner of a copy. In Modern times we also talk about the rights of successors. 

Historically there was also a belief that a sovereign had the right to censor and to regulate the printing industry and therefore what people wrote. 

While I am not going to go into a huge amount of detail, the origins of some of these rights can be traced back to ancient Greek, Jewish, and Roman laws and traditions. Particularly, some of the ideas of what constituted the rights of the individual came from Greek society, where the notion of the individual self, including personal ideals, ambition, and creativity all started to emerge.

However, no discussion of copywrite would ever be complete without talking about The Statute of Anne, of 1710.

Queen Anne of England, Scotland, and Ireland, reigned from March 1702 to until her death in 1714. Anne was a moderate and a favorite of the Tory politicians, but that is not important right now.  

Anne was plagued by ill health throughout her life, and from her thirties, she grew increasingly ill. Anne had a lot of pregnancies but could not produce and heir, so she was the last monarch form the house of Stuart. And still, that is not important to our story. Neither is it important that she was succeeded by her cousin, George I of the House of Hanover.

What is important was a law she signed in 1710. It was referred to as the Statute of Anne and it would forever form the basis of what we understand as modern copywrite today although the particulars have changed over the years and of course different countries have different cultural norms which shape the way it is looked at.

The Act reads as follows and I apologize to people of England for my really bad impression of a Brit.

An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vest-ing the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.

Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing, or causing to be Print-ed, Reprinted, and Published Books, and other Writings, without the Con-sent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Fami-lies: For Preventing therefore such Practices for the future, and for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write use-ful Books; 

A quick translation. They recognize that people are profiting off of work that they did not, themselves, actually write. Furthermore, they are acknowledging that this practice is actually financially hurting the authors or the proprietors. So not only are they saying the authors, but anyone who has a legal claim to the original work. That is important. This is where the idea that publishers and sometimes editors get a piece of the pie too.

Okay back into character. 

“From and after the Tenth Day of April, One thousand seven hundred and ten, the Author of any Book or Books already Printed, who hath not Transferred to any other the Copy or Copies of such Book or Books, Share or Shares thereof, or the Bookseller or Book-sellers, Printer or Printers, or other Person or Persons, who hath or have Purchased or Acquired the Copy or Copies of any Book or Books, in order to Print or Reprint the same, shall have the sole Right and Liberty of Printing such Book and Books for the Term of One and twenty Years.”

So, that is a long list of things. But it really is trying setting limits on the Author saying that if you sell the rights to printers or others, but only for 21 years. But it also went on to say… 

from the said Tenth Day of April, and no longer; and that the Author of any Book or Books already Composed and not Printed and Published, or that shall hereafter be Composed, and his Assignee, or Assigns, shall have the sole Liberty of Printing and Reprinting such Book and Books for the Term of four-teen years.

Essentially it means that if you had sold something to a publisher (printer) then they had the rights to it for 21 years. If you write something, that gives you 14 years protection.

Clear? Well, not really. Although this was a step in the right direction, it did little to demuddle who owned what after the end of the 21 years term and authors could still be pretty screwed. No, it did not really clear up the whole problem.

I am not going to read the rest of the statue as it is three more pages long, but suffice it to say it was a step in the right direction.

I know, you are saying to yourself, “But Bryan, copywrite is totally a international thing.” Well, yes and now. You see, international law only works if a country has domestic laws which mirror the international law. So, if a Chinese firm wants to steal your work and put it on their website, guess what? Yeah, there is not a ton you can do about it.

So, I stole this from It is an article on the topic written by Michael Denniston.

There are a number of international treaties and conventions that provide protection for creative works that are the subject matter of copyright. Generally, those international agreements provide protection for copyrightable works once they are. The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works is the most important international treaty that addresses international protection for copyright. The United States acceded to that treaty in 1989. With the accession of China in 1992 and the Russian Federation in 1995, almost all of the world’s most important countries now belong to the Berne Union. The Copyright Office publishes a listing of the countries that are parties to the Berne Convention, as well as other international copyright treaties like the Universal Copyright Convention.


It goes onto say that while the United States Copyright Act can impose a requirement that the owner of a United States work must register the copyright with the Copyright Office before filing an infringement suit in federal court, it cannot impose that same obligation on foreign nationals. Likewise, foreign jurisdictions cannot impose similar formality requirements on U.S. copyright owners as a condition to filing suit in their national courts, even though they can impose those requirements on their own nationals.

So, where does that leave us authors? The Berne convention says that we have copywrite protection on anything we write, but do not have to register it in the countries in which we believe we have been infringed.

However, international copywrite law carries with it no real renumeration.

In the united states, naturally we have a really obnoxiously long and complicated law which pertains to everything. I mean, why use one word when three will do, right? We have U.S. Title 17 of the US code. It is 14 chapters long, and has appendices A through S. Four of which deal with the Berne principle of which I just spoke.

Now for the benefit of all, I am not going to read it all. But I will share some important points. 

As my understanding of the copywrite law goes, you are considered to be covered when you “created” that work. Now, of course this is American law, so we need to define what created means. Yes, you heard that right. *sigh*

A work is “created” when it is fixed in a copy or phonorecord for the first time; where a work is prepared over a period of time, the portion of it that has been fixed at any particular time constitutes the work as of that time, and where the work has been prepared in different versions, each version constitutes a separate work.

As I understand it, that means when you save it to your computer for the first time, with the understanding that each copy you save is similarly protected under US copywrite laws.

Now we know what it means to be created. But how long does it provide us protection for?

(a) In General.—Copyright in a work created on or after January 1, 1978, subsists from its creation and, except as provided by the following subsections, endures for a term consisting of the life of the author and 70 years after the author’s death.

(b) Joint Works.—In the case of a joint work prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire, the copyright endures for a term consisting of the life of the last surviving author and 70 years after such last surviving author’s death.

(c) Anonymous Works, Pseudonymous Works, and Works Made for Hire.—In the case of an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication, or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.

Okay, now we have cracked that nut. But I am not ready to say goodbye yet. I want to talk to you about a copy write page. What the heck is it, what should it have, and what does it need to say? Again I am going to turn to a resource rather than try and talk you through it. 

Years ago I was handed a small book about marketing written by Eric Beebe. The book is the No Nonsense No Gimmick Guide to Marketing Your Book: How to Sell More Books without Selling Your Soul in the Process. I’m not even sure they sell it anymore, but it contains a good list of what you really need to have on your copywrite page. 

Essentially it can contain a lot of different things. What Eric calls his incomplete list is “Copywrite Notice”, Publication Date, cover artist information, publishers address, country of printing, impression line telling the reader what was the year of current printing, ISBN number (next week’s topic), acknoweldgements, permissions, credits, and grants, Library of congress CIP data if you have it, and paper durability statement.

Now, it is important to point out that this did not just come out of Eric’s butt. He got it from the Chicago Manual of Style. 

As I have stated before, if you are an author running around out there all loosie goosey without a CMS, something is wrong with you. It covers tons of aspects of copywrite law and your CMS will be your guide.

Want to know what a proper copywrite page looks like? Well, pull a book off the shelf and chances are good you will find it there. I always include one in my work.

Do you need one? Well, no. Legally you are covered the moment you first hit that save button on the manuscript file you are working with, but here is the thing.

Would you take an author seriously if they didn’t have one? I would not care either way, but a lot of people point out that if you don’t have one you may not look as professional as you can when you have that book on your table at the fair or Con where you are trying to sell someone you invested so much time in.

Well, that is it for this installment of all things writing. Catch me next week where I am going to talk about ISBNs. Yes, sexy topic indeed.

Thanks for listening, this is Bryan the Writer, signing off.