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Copyright law.

On April 5, 1789, Dr. David Ramsay, of South Carolina, sent a petition to Congress, setting forth that he was the author of two books—a History of South Carolina and a History of the American Revolution—and praying that body to pass a law giving him and his legal successors the exclusive right to vend and dispose of those works in the United States for a term of years. A general bill to that effect was passed in 1790; and afterwards other bills were passed, incorporating with the copyright bill another for securing patents for mechanical inventions. The term of a copyright was then fixed at fourteen years for books already published, and the same term for unpublished books, with the privilege of a renewal for fourteen years longer. In 1831 a general copyright law was passed, granting copyright for twenty-eight years, and providing for a renewal for fourteen years. In 1856 a law was passed giving to the authors of dramatic compositions the exclusive right of publicly representing them or causing them to be represented. In 1870 all copyright statutes were repealed by a general copyright law (to which some amendments were added in 1874), permitting any citizen of the United States who shall be the “author, inventor, designer, or proprietor of any book, map, chart, dramatic or musical [367] composition, engraving, cut, print, or photograph or negative thereof, or a painting, drawing, chromo, statue or statuary, and of models and designs intended to be perfected as works of the fine arts, to secure a copyright thereof for twenty-eight years, with the privilege of a renewal for himself, his widow, or children, for fourteen years more.” Copyright certificates are issued solely by the Librarian of Congress. A copy of the title of a book, or description of a picture, must be deposited with him before the publication thereof; and two copies of a book or picture (the latter by photograph) must be sent to such librarian within ten days after publication. A copy of every new edition must be sent to the librarian. A failure to comply with these conditions is punishable by a fine of $25.

Although the first copyright law in this country was passed in 1790, it was not until a little more than 100 years later that the principle of protection was extended to others than citizens of the United States. The injustice done to foreigners by excluding them from the privileges of copyright was early apparent, and the only excuse to be offered therefor was that the laws of Great Britain permitted a similar injustice to be practised upon Americans. Literary “piracy,” as it was called, became common in both countries. Books by British authors were freely republished in America without compensation to their authors, and American books were likewise reproduced in England. And yet the English law was more just than the American, for it allowed a foreigner to secure British copyright, provided the work was first published within the United Kingdom, and the author was at the time of publication anywhere within the British dominions. A movement to secure the passage of some kind of international copyright law was begun in Congress as early as 1837, when Henry Clay presented a petition of British authors asking for the protection of their works. This petition was favorably reported upon by the select committee to which it was referred, but no further action was taken. In 1843, George P. Putnam presented to Congress a memorial signed by many leading publishers which declared that the absence of international copyright was “alike injurious to the business of publishing and to the best interests of the public.” After this frequent efforts were made to secure a change in the law, and several bills were introduced into Congress from time to time with that object in view.

In 1883 an association called The American Copyright League was founded for the purpose of securing the co-operation of authors and publishers in advancing the cause of international justice, and through its persistent efforts the copyright bill of 1891 was finally passed. When first voted upon in the House of Representatives this bill was defeated by a very small majority. Early in the next session of Congress it was again brought up and passed by a vote of 139 to 95. In the Senate action was delayed until almost the last day of the session. It was at length passed with several objectionable amendments attached, but through the conference committee, to which it was referred, it was adopted substantially as reported from the House. It was signed by President Harrison, March 4, 1891, and went into effect on July 1, following. The law thus secured, after so long a struggle, provides that foreigners may take American copyright on the same basis as American citizens, in case (1) that the nation of the foreigner permits copyright to American citizens on substantially the same basis as its own citizens, or (2) that the nation of the foreigner is a party to an international agreement providing for reciprocity in copyright, by the terms of which agreement the United States may become a party thereto. The existence of these conditions shall be determined by the President of the United States and announced by proclamation. It required, however, that foreign books, etc., so copyrighted and circulated in the United States must be printed from type set in the United States, or from plates made therefrom, or from negatives or drawings on stone which have been made in the United States. The importation of foreign editions of books protected by American copyright is forbidden.

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