Copyright has a long tradition in American and English law. Today, however, cultural, technological, political and economic changes are stretching both the definition and scope of copyright in ways that can fundamentally change its meaning and destroy traditional notions associated with the term. The potential impact of these changes for governments -- both as regulators of copyright laws and purveyors of information -- are substantial.


The rise of copyright is associated with a key advance in information technology: the development of printing presses. As detailed by Lisa Jardine in Worldly Goods, a recent history of the Renaissance, the development of the printing press brought with it a rush to publish and sell heretofore rare books available only in monasteries and a few private collections. Scholars also began translating classical works into vernacular, or developing their own commentaries on classical books, which were rushed into print by continental and English publishers.

While the development of the printing press was a technological leap over hand-printed books, the costs of production were substantial, since each page required laborious typesetting, papermaking and printing. In order to protect their investments, publishers sought a monopoly to publish certain works through national governments. Governments were also interested in controlling printing within their boundaries in order to ban heretical works. In England, the control of printed works began in earnest with a charter granted in 1557 to the Stationers' Company, which kept records of books acceptable to royal censors and granted exclusive publishing rights to certain printers.

That charter lapsed in 1695, and was replaced by the Statute of Anne in 1710. The new legislation placed time limits on copyrights, removed the requirement of censorship prior to publication and for the first time recognized the rights of authors to copyright, rather than strictly upholding the economic rights of publishers. In effect, the Statute of Anne gave authors a time-limited monopoly over their intellectual property. This limited monopoly over works helped authors receive payment for their work and provided an incentive to publishers to seek out new authors, since time limits required the identification of new works to publish.

The American colonies followed the English tradition closely. Article 1 of the Constitution authorized Congress to establish copyrights "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." The first copyright act was passed in 1790, but was targeted more at protecting American economic interests than the universal monopoly of authors, since it protected only American authors published by American publishers. It was not until 1891 -- when the economic advantages of protecting American writers and publishers in the international market outweighed the advantages of freely pirating European authors like Dickens -- did Congress enact an international copyright act.

In 1909 and again in 1976, Congress enacted copyright legislation to cover the development of new information media such as motion picture, radio, television and other technologies. The Copyright Act of 1976 brought the United States more closely in line with the Berne Convention, a copyright agreement established among European publishers in 1886, but which was resisted for a century by American media companies for economic reasons. The 1976 act also expanded authors' copyright monopolies over the length of their lives plus 50 years and codified for the first time the concept of fair use in American law.


The concept of fair use is critical both to the notion of copyright and the battles over copyright in an electronic, networked environment. In general, it seeks to balance an author's -- and by extension a publisher's -- monopoly right over a work against society's need to promote the exchange and diffusion of knowledge and foster advances in science and the arts. While fair use in American jurisprudence harks back to 1841 (Folsom vs. March), the 1976 Copyright Act attempted to establish general