History of Copyright

The History of Copyright starts with books and then expanded to cover painting, photographs, film, audio, film, broadcasting and now the digital world.

‘Copyright’ was developed in the UK in the 17th century in response to the then new technology of book-printing, and has gradually developed to include new forms of communication such as photography, broadcasting, film and, more recently computers and digital technology. For those involved in education it is interesting to note that the first copyright Act in the UK, the Statute of Anne of 1710  was subtitled An Act for the Encouragement of Learning’ .

The image of Queen Anne is from 'The History of England', by David Hume (vols 1 and 2 and Tobia Smollet Voll 3) published in 1860 and digitised by the Guttenberg project over a hundred years later who placed the image file online and into the public domain.

Since 1710 copyright has gradually increased its scope from book printing to include engraving, photography and film, sheet and recorded music, broadcasting and most recently digital forms of communication and databases. With each new form of media there was a step change in the culture of copyright. At the same time as the number of media involved in copyright have increased the length of time, the duration, that a work remains in copyright in the UK has increased very significantly from the original 14 years set in 1710 to 42 in 1842, to 50 in 1956 and then in 1988 the current 70 years.

In different countries copyright has developed differently - even in its fundamentals. Copyright law reflects the geberal law and principles of different countries. Britain (UK) developed copyright as a property concept through the 18th and 19th century and still has 'the effort put into a work' as part of its copyright value as well as the original 'creative' value. USA followed Britain with a 'copyright-as-property' model and developed it in within their own entrepreneurial culture. In mainland Europe copyright developed along a different path - copyright as author-centred - and it is from this concept that moral rights developed. Moral rights have only been added into copyright legislation in the UK since 1989.

The whole world - The Berne Convention

In the 19th century while an author could copyright their work in their own country, say England, they had no way of stopping someone else publishing their work in another country, say France or Germany. At that time this sort of cross-border piracy often did as much good as bad by spreading the author's works abroad and making their ideas and reputation known. As communications devleoped the bad side of this piracy, the proliferation of poor and sometimes erronious or falsified copies, became more important to authors. Instigated by the French writer Victor Hugo, The Berne Convention set out a framework for world-wide copyright in 1886 in which countries agreed to a set of basic rules for copyright. This international idea followed a similar movement to internationalise patents and designs.

Map from Wikipedia licenced under Creative Commons BY SA 3.0 unported 

The developments of the Berne Convention led to the establishment of The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) in 1967.  The framework of agreements includes copyright being automatic, there being moral rights, fair use and harmonisation of durations - such as 'the rule of the shorter term' which means an author is not allowed longer protection in other countries than the one in which they created the work.  While 167 countries are signatories to the Convention not everyone agrees on everything and there are still differences between the copyright 'rules' and laws around the world - for example the EU has introduced durations of 70 years for most media not the 50 years set out in the Berne Convention. The Convention has been revised many times to reflect changes such as internet technologies and to be bring all countries into its framework.

Copyright is gradually spreading throughout the globe with the trend being that economic development tends to bring copyright into regulated use so countries like China and some in African continent and gradually taking copyright on board.

The message for schools ...

For schools the message about copyright around the world is simply - it's 'the same only different':

  • In principle it's the same - copyright protects the creator or owner wherever you are and whoever you are working with
  • Everyone uses the same categories of copyright types (media)  
  • Durations are different - though similar in most countries
  • Most countries have signed up to international agreements - but not all and not all to all


  • Distinct differences in the underpinning law to the copyright regulation and, therefore, practice ...
  • Distinct differences in what 'fair use' and 'fair dealing' mean and permit. They are not interchangable.


 More on History of Copyright?

 See Shapesoftime for more about the fascinating History of Copyright