Historical evolution of copyright law

copyright law

Barron’s Law dictionary defines copyright as “The protection of the works of artists and authors giving them the exclusive right to publish their works or determine who may so publish.”

Protecting the works of writers, painters, photographers, filmmakers are becoming increasingly important in this day and age. Social media today has made everything so dispensable to us that it is very easy to plagiarize and misuse someone else’s hard work without even taking their consent. Copyright laws enable an artist to not only protect their work but also help them benefit financially. The artist/ holder hence gets the freedom to regulate and distribute and benefit from their labour. It also promotes innovation. A lot of talent energy and innovative thinking is required to come up with an original idea so it is only natural that the creators should benefit from their effort.


Copyright essentially terms the author or producer’s work as a literary property. It is a positive law or a manmade law i.e. a law that was made by the state to protect the rights of its citizens. It derives its authority from the sovereignty or the state and can be challenged in court.

Positive laws mainly consist of civil disputes of a less serious nature, unlike natural laws which cover criminal matters like a murder.

Copyright gives the producer an exclusive right legally to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize someone else to do it.

The earliest dispute related to a copyright dispute can be traced back to an old Irish manuscript called the Cathach. The Cathach was the oldest surviving manuscript by the Psalter. It contains versions of Psalms XXX(10) to CV (13) in the Latin language. It is traditionally accredited to Saint Columba because the copy, made in the dark hurriedly by a miraculous light, of a Psalter, lent to Columba by St. Finnian. There was a dispute regarding its ownership, the then King Diarmait Mac Cerbhaill declared “To every cow belongs her calf; therefore, to every book belongs its copy.”

Before the invention of printing manuscripts was normally handwritten by copyists who did it either out of goodwill or were paid. Although there were complaints by earlier authors on the blunders by copyists and more than one protest in anger against the mangled manuscripts of the hurried servile transcribers none of them really complained about any copyright infringement. The importance of copyright grew after the invention of printers.

Johannes Gutenberg, a German inventor printer and publisher kickstarted printing in Europe. Caxton set up the first press in England in 1474. Initially, the printers acted as the publishers too. The first few books were mainly Bibles, prayer books etc.

But in 1465, not more than fifteen years since its invention. German printers Fust and Schoeffer tried to publish famous Roman statesman Cicero’s book De Officiis. The original manuscripts required meticulous modifications to be publishable. The publishers had to sometimes interpret it themselves or take the help of highly educated scholars to make it easy for students to understand. After a highly laborious and time-consuming effort when the book was ready, the publishers were outraged when rival printers sold copies at a much lesser rate since they didn’t have to pay for the scholars etc. to help publish the first copy and sought for a legal remedy.

The Senate of Venice then issued an order granting John of Spira the exclusive right for five years to publish the prints Cicero and of Pliny.

By granting this privilege, the sovereign had exceptionally exercised its power to protect the exceptional merit showcased by a worthy citizen. Although the privilege was given for a brief period only, it definitely set a precedent. A precedent which now has expanded and modified over the years. Today, a book published in Venice is protected for at least a period of fifty years due to international conventions that cover all of Europe.

This habit of taking permission from authorities of the state for special privileges to print books was trending increasingly. In 1491, Venice granted Italian jurist Peter of Ravenna along with a publisher of his choice exclusive rights to print and distribute his book Phoenix, this was the first instance recorded when copyright was given to the author himself. Italian states ” encouraged printing and granted printers exclusive rights up to fourteen years to print specified classics,”

Germany issued its first privilege at Nuremberg in 1510. France allowed copyrighting only one edition at a time, the publisher had to issue a second patent if the works were reprinted.

In England, Richard Pynson, who was the then ruler Henry VIII’s chief printer was the first to issue his book cum privileges, his title-page declared that no one could print or import any copies for two years in all of England.  In 1533 his rival Winken de Worde acquired the King’s privilege to publish the second edition of Witinton’s grammar.

The first edition published 10 years ago was reprinted by Peter Trevers without his permission, Worde who was despoiled objected to this and on that basis applied for it and secured protection. This was another instance when a man did not think of his rights until he felt he was wronged.  Over the years the expeditious development of copyright laws is due to the relentless protests of artists who have been deprived of controlling or enjoying the benefits of their labour.

Statute of Anne- But the privilege system concentrated mainly on regulating the printing process of books. The authors had no role or recognition in this area. They usually sold their books for a lump sum and enjoyed very limited benefits depending on the terms they had with their printer but these benefits were not officially recognized.

This all changed in the late seventeenth century when writing became more secular and authors demanded property rights of their writings. This movement was accelerated with John’s Locke’s labour theory which was very popular during the civil rights era.

Thus in 1709, an act titled “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.” or the Statute of Anne was passed by queen Anne in England. As the title itself suggested, this statute for the first time granted copyright privileges to the author itself. This newly enacted formulation was the product of a new balance between political and economic powers, and demands that were the product of philosophical developments taking place during that time. Although given a very limited time of ownership (28 years) it set a precedent for other nations such as the USA.

It also wanted to abolish the monopolistic practices amongst the printers and keep a check on pricing. Stationers’ Company register was abolished and in order to get a copyright, the author had to send a copy to the royal library and to a few university libraries.

In the famous case of Donaldson v Beckett, the House of Lords declared as per common law the author had an exclusive right to publish their book for the first time after which this right was annulled i.e. authors now did not have perpetual ownership of their work. This led to a market of cheap prints of classic books such as Shakespeare and Homer.

The Statute of Anne was not abided by in America although the Articles of Federation encouraged individual states to form their own laws; it was later made into federal law. The Copyright Act of 1790 was passed giving American authors a right to print, reprint and publish their own work for a period of fourteen years, this could be increased for another fourteen upon request. This monopoly was created as an incentive to encourage budding authors, artists and scientists to create original works. After 28 years the work became public domain to support and promote new creativity in arts and science.

Several amendments took place over the years, in 1976 the requirement to register to obtain copyright was not mandatory however to receive full protection from the law it is  encouraged.

Berne Convention: This was the first time the copyright was recognized by governments on an international level. It was signed in September 1986 in Berne Switzerland. It aimed to protect the authors and not the publishers. It removed the requirement for all works to have a copyright notice. In 1928. It also revised its moral rights giving authors the right to be identified and also to object to the derogation of their work, these were non-transferable rights. It also made a few modifications for the reproduction of any literary or artistic work.

Copyright in India

Copyright in India covers all original published or unpublished works including literary, drama and artwork. Copyright here is applicable as soon as the product comes into existence and no formality is required to obtain its benefits although it is encouraged as it is helpful evidence. The Copyright Act in India was implemented for the first time in 1914. It emulated the 1911 act of the United Kingdom. Currently, we follow the Copyright Act of 1957. Several amendments took place over the years in order to adapt to the current trends and international conventions out of them. 2012 is the most significant one as it brought in new laws to conform to the technology treaties of WIPO. Several terms such as commercial rental and storing were also defined. The duration of the copyright of a photograph was also increased at par with literary works i.e. for the entire lifetime of the producer and 60 years after his death. The author can also relinquish the rights with the help of public notice.

India is a member of the Berne Convention, 1886 and also the Universal Copyright Convention, 1951. In case of violations under this act as per Section 56, the perpetrator can be injuncted, imprisoned for up to three years or would have to give financial relief up to 2 lakhs


Copyright is important because it gives economic benefits to our intellectuals who should be compensated for their effort and extraordinary thought. Such laws will also protect them from getting exploited copied and also encourage them to do more creative work and most importantly ensure that the originator or author gets his due credit. This would also give them the power to influence its future. In the past infringement was very common especially in industrial countries but now with an increase in awareness and new laws they can be kept in check. At the same time, laws should ensure that such measures do not hinder with the creativity of individuals.

“The views of the authors are personal

Frequently asked questions

Do we have to register for copyright in India?

No, Copyright laws are applicable as soon as the work is produced but registering it will be helpful evidence.

For how long is copyright available to an author in India?

The law can be used by the author during his entire lifetime and 60 years after his death

What works can be copyrighted?

All literary, artistic, cinematographic and drama, photographic work etc can be copyrighted

Does India follow the Berne Convention?

Yes, India is a member of the Berne Convention

Sneha Kolluru
Hi, I'm Sneha Kolluru, A passion for politics, reading and endless arguing with people for the most frivolous things possible have led me to pursue law at Pune University. Combine that with a confusing combination of hyper energy and a dangerous obsession with tv series characters and you've most probably met my clone.