With the development of the printing press in 1439, and with a much wider literacy rate, England established a law forbidding books to be published by anybody other than members of the Stationers' Guild. This was intended to prevent publication of materials that might threaten the Church or the State.In itself, this decree was more a matter of censorship than of copyright. But the Stationers' Guild established its own internal rules that provide the first semblance of copyright.
Under the Guild's rules, a member could register a title in a book called the Stationers' Register, and it was understood that no other member would be allowed to publish that work. This effectively granted the publisher perpetual rights on any work that the publisher chose to register. Once an author sold a work to the published, the author had no further rights concerning the work. At that time, professional authors were usually financed as artists were, through a patron.
This arrangement held for nearly 150 years, even through the English Revolution, but it began to fall apart by 1695, partly due to books being imported from outside England. The Stationers' Register remains an important historical source, particularly concerning the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
The first full-fledged copyright law, in England or elsewhere, was established in England during the reign of Queen Anne. Under this law, an author would have exclusive rights to a work for a period of 14 years from the work's first publication; the copyright could be renewed for a second 14 years if the author was still living at that time, but it could not be re-renewed. To qualify for this protection, the author had to provide a number of copies to the Stationers' Register, who would then distribute them to a list of government and university libraries listed by the statute.
Besides being the first formal law concerning copyrights, it also made two particularly important shifts from the preceding practice: First, it shifted the rights to the author rather than the publisher, completing shifting the financial arrangements for authors. And second, it established the concept of the expiration of those rights.
After the Revolutionary War, most colonies adopted individual statutes similar to the Statute of Anne. Realizing that having several separate copyright regimes was untenable within the States, the Constitution designated this one of the powers of Congress:
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 (Article I, Section 8)
(This allows protections for inventors as well. This, however, is regulated under a completely different set of laws, relating to patents.)
Congress established the Copyright in its second
session. Thomas Brennan described the act:
first thing that should have been condemned under the new
Copyright Act was the act itself, because it was almost a
verbatim copy of the Statute of Anne. It maintained the same
14-year term with 14-year extension; the biggest change was that
a copy of the work was to be sent to the Secretary of State rather
than to the Stationers' Guild. (This was later amended to have
the copy sent to the Library of Congress.)
The act applied only to maps, charts, and books. There were a sequence of minor revisions to the act, which gradually extended the protections to other categories of works, such as musical compositions, paintings, and dramatic performances.
Also, the term of the copyright grew in 1831 to 28 years, with a potential extension of 14 additional years.
In 1834, the Supreme Court heard its first important case dealing with copyright. Wheaton had published a 24-volume work (which happened to be summaries of Supreme Court decisions and accompanying commentary). After it had fallen out of copyright, Peters created an abridged edition, which proved very popular and hurt Wheaton's sales considerably. His court case claimed that he had an intrinsic right to his work, even after the copyright had formally expired according to federal law. Today, this may seem an unusual claim to make in light of the 1790 Act; his argument rested on common law practices, by analogy to property rights. An earlier British court decision (Millar v. Taylor, 1769) had indeed taken this position with respect to the Statute of Anne.
The Court found in Peters' favor, ruling that the Constitution's explicit remarks on limited terms took precedence over whatever might be intuitive about property rights. This opinion ended up agreeing with an earlier British decision on Donaldson v. Beckett (1774).
Up until 1886, an author's rights only applied that country alone. Thus, Charles Dickens regularly complained that he had no control over publishers in the United States publishing copies of his works, and he certainly didn't receive royalties. The English musicians Gilbert and Sullivan premiered Pirates and Penzance first in the United States precisely because they wanted to establish their copyright protection in the U. S. (I've read rumors that the title in fact refers to the Americans who pirated their earier operas, although I can't find a reliable source for this.)
Prompted by the French author Victor Hugo, several countries met to put together a joint agreement, under which a country must extend the same protections it gives to its own citizens to authors from other members of the convention.
The Berne convention was based in French law, and it departed from
the English standards in two important respects. First, the protection
applied as soon as the work was
fixed, which essentially means
that copyright is received as soon as it is written down; there is
no requirement of registration. And second, the term of the
copyright was extended dramatically, to last for 50 years past
the author's death.
In the U. S. did not participate in the Berne Convention, and the Copyright Act of 1790 still applied. The 1790 law applied only to U. S. citizens, and then only to work published within the United States. Some American authors, including Mark Twain, complained about this, which led to the 1891 law. Under the 1891 law, non-citizens were also eligible for copyright protection, provided the work was published within the United States.
Congress cleaned up the whole succession of acts since 1790 relating to copyright by packaging them together into a single act. At the same time, the term was lengthened to 28 years, plus a possible extension for another 28 years. This act is probably most important because a lot of important work published between 1909 and 1976 fell under the protection of this law.
This law required three things to obtain protection. First, the work had to contain a copyright notice. Second, it had to be registered with the Copyright Office. And third, a copy of the work had to be sent to the Library of Congress. Sometimes, works would fail to include a copyright notice; an example is Alfred Hitchcock's 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much, where the copyright notice was inadvertently cut out during editing. (Hitchcock later remade the film in 1956. He claimed to prefer this version — conveniently, this was also the version from which he was receiving royalties.)
The United States began moving toward the Berne Convention in a 1976 law. This was the first major change to United States copyright law since the Statute of Anne. Some of the significant changes include:
Removing the requirement of publication to be eligible for copyright.
Removing the requirement of registration and of sending a copy to the Library of Congress. (Registration is still required, though, in order to prosecute a case.) The requirement of providing a notice on each copy (©) remained.
Change the term to the Berne Convention's standard of the life of the author plus 50 years. It provides also the option of a fixed term of 75 years, particularly for the case of works completed for hire. There is no policy allowing renewal.
Protection could be obtained for works not published initially in the United States (or in Canada).
A century after the Berne Convention was established, the United States made the final few adoptions to its 1976 law to allow it to join the Berne Convention. This act removed the requirement of including a copyright notice. Today, the Berne Convention covers virtually all countries; the non-participating countries are mostly very small countries and then a few that aren't surprising, such as Myanmar and Iran.
This act extended the term of copyrights to 70 years after the author's death, or 95 years for works created for hire. It did this retroactively, so that any works that still had a copyright in 1998 got an additional 20 years of copyright protection. The retroactive protection led to a Supreme Court Case Eldred v. Ashcroft, which supported the extension by a 7-2 vote in early 2003.