The Origins of Copyright Law – When Photographers Gained Protection

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Copyright is currently classified among the most basic rights which shall be granted to anyone creating art, but it was not always the case. Let’s go on a short journey back to the ancient times to see if the first artists had any clue about such a term. Then we are going to travel through the next centuries to find out more about the history of copyright.

© Chinnapong

We have just landed in ancient Rome. Except for the emperors feasting in gowns, there are also painters, writers and musicians who have no clue that such a thing as copyright may even exist. Copying and redistributing art for profit was not really a popular practice in ancient times, probably also due to the fact that the majority of the society could not even read and write. There was simply no need for such a thing as copyright. Artists were just paid for their work.

© Slava Gerj

From Rome To Ireland

From Rome, we are off to another European country where one of the first documented cases of plagiarism was identified and highly criticized. 6th century AD, Ireland. It was St. Columba who copied a book by St. Finnian – word by word, arguing that the words of God needed to be spread among a bigger amount of people. The dispute was taken to the king and it was St. Finnian who was declared to be right. The king used a simple comparison to justify his verdict: ’To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy‘.

After this episode, there was not really much going on in terms of copyright for a thousand of years until the technology and politics started to rule the world. It was the printing machine which evoked the issue of the copyright. In 1501, Pope Alexander VI issued the Papal Bull against the unlicensed printing of books. Not much later, The Worshipful Company of Stationers & Newspaper Makers was created. After the English Civil war, without the king (who was replaced by the Parliament), the Stationers’ monopoly was not that politically useful and finally denied by the Parliament. Right after the association broke up, the newspapers popped up and started to be used as propaganda. It did not take long to notice the importance of the copyright regulation. It was Jonathan Swift, an Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist and political pamphleteer, who made a public statement about it, saying:

‘One man studies seven years,

to bring a finished piece into the world,

and a pirate printer,

reprints his copy immediately, and

sells it for a quarter of the price…

such things call for an act of Parliament.’

© Vyntage Visuals

In order to address the concerns of the English writers and booksellers, in 1710 Parliament enacted the Statute of Anne. The 1710 act established the principles of authors’ ownership of copyright. A fixed term of protection of copyrighted work of fourteen years, renewable for fourteen more if the author was still alive, also came into force.

From England to the United States

From England, we shall fly to the U.S. where the Congress claimed that in order to support a constant development of science and arts, the authors’ and inventors’ rights to their writings and discoveries should be protected. The 1st copyright act was established in 1790 but it was not applicable in the U.S. In the 21st century, the U.S. still continued to take a lot from the rich European cultural heritage for free and weak copyright would make the art really cheap. However, it did not take long until the roles reverted. At the end of the 20th century, America became a dominant cultural exporter.

In the following years, the conditions of the copyrights also evolved. Their duration significantly increased – from the first extension in 1831 of 28 years with 14 years renewal up to the life of the author plus the 70 years in 1998.  Another important moment in the history of Copyright was the Berne Convention (1886) which differed significantly from both British and American Copyright Laws. While those were rather focused on the commerce, the Convention mostly favoured the rights of the authors.

The Berne Convention

The Berne Convention was followed by the Berlin Act signed by a big number of European countries such as Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia and the United Kingdom. The United States decided to send a delegation to follow the meetings but did not sign the act. The 1976 U.S. Copyright Act harmonized the U.S. Copyright terms with the international standards. Under this act, a photographer’s work is protected by copyright from the moment of its creation. 6 years later, in 1988, President Ronald Regan signed the bill adding the U.S. to the Berne Convention.

It was the cultural development, scientific discoveries and the course of history which made people understand that the intellectual property is a tangible thing that should belong to its creator. Once you take a closer look at a picture, you can see parts of what was in the photographer’s head while a photo was taken and sense the individual perspective. So the right to a certain piece of work comes naturally. The government is only responsible for execution in case of any violations. Even though the copyright seems to be guaranteed, do not forget to register your artworks. Find out here why it is so important and how to do it.

XXI Century

Nowadays, there are still some differences between the European and the U.S. Copyright Laws. Work For Hire can be a good example since it only exists in the U.S. The course of times shows that copyright law needs to be tailored for the changes and ready to be adjusted. Each case is different and depends on the type of artwork protected by law. There might also be some loopholes and grey areas concerning a certain piece of legal thinking and it is sometimes quite easy to get lost in it. That is why, together with a bunch of legal guardians, we keep an eye on the changes in the copyright and help photographers protect their copyrights. Would you like us to take care of yours as well? The application should not take you longer than a few minutes. After that’s done, just go and shoot – create works to which you own the rights!

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About the Author:

Content Creator, Marketing & PR Specialist. Business and Journalism & Social Communication graduate. Experienced in working freelance and in a multi-cultural environment. Want to spread a word about PhotoClaim? Get in touch with Ania, she makes sure PhotoClaim reaches photographers and photography enthusiasts who want to protect their copyrights.

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