A Timeline of Copyright Duration (from Queen Anne to "John Bach" to Napoleon to Sonny Bono)

Mar 17, 2015

In researching two posts on copyright (one on a study of Italian opera composers, and the other on cases involving Jean Sibelius), I found it useful to make myself a simple chronological timeline of laws on copyright duration. Just in case you find it useful too, here it is:

  • 1710: Great Britain's Statute of Anne is the first law to treat copyright as something "regulated by the government and courts, rather than by private parties," to treat copyright as of limited duration rather than permanent and to create a public domain into which works pass once their copyright expires. It also is the first law to define the purpose of copyright as the public good - the encouraging of the "learned" to "compose and write useful books."
  • 1774: Great Britain's House of Lords, in the Donnelson vs. Beckett case, confirms that copyright is of limited duration, not perpetual.

  • Johann Christian Bach, painted in London in 1776 by Thomas Gainsborough.
    Credit wikimedia commons

    1777: J.S. Bach's youngest son, Johann Christian Bach (b. 1740, and known to his dad as "Christel") - now the most celebrated composer in London, where he was known as "John Bach" - wins the lawsuit that first applies intellectual property rights to sheet music under the Statute of Anne. He died five years later deeply in debt, partly because he had been defrauded by a servant.

  • 1790: Article 1 of the US Constitution gives Congress authority "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.” Like Great Britain, the congress set that limited time at 14 years, renewable for 14. (Thomas Jefferson calculated, based on actuarial data, that it should be 19 years so that it would be “proportionate to average lifespans.”)

  • 1793: France - The revolutionary government establishes a copyright term of life-plus-10 posthumous years if the author has heirs.

  • 1810: France - Napoleon establishes copyright for the life of the author and of the surviving spouse (if there is one), plus 20 years if there are children.

  • 1826: France - The Bourbon restoration proposes life-plus-50 years
  • 1831: The US extends copyright to 28 years from publication, still renewable for only 14 years.

  • 1836: France - The July Monarchy proposes life-plus-50 years.

  • 1837: Prussia adopts copyright term of author's life-plus-30 posthumous years.
  • 1845: The German Federation adopts term of author’s life-plus-30 posthumous years.

  • 1854:  France adopts life-plus-30 years.
  • 1863: In France, a commission suggests life-plus-50 years.

  • 1856: Germany adds ten years for certain classic authors.

  • 1866: France adopts life-plus-50 years

  • 1879: Spain adopts life-plus-80 years

  • 1891: The US recognizes international copyright.

  • 1909: US extends copyright to 28 years from publication, now renewable for 28 more.

  • 1923: Romanian law recognizes the author’s “moral rights” (which go beyond economic or "personal" rights and were first proposed in nineteenth-century Europe).

  • 1925: Mussolini’s Italian copyright law also protects "moral rights"

  • 1926: Poland's moral-rights law prohibits excess criticism of a work

  • 1926: Czech law adds moral right of the author to have access to the original.

  • 1927: Portugal grants perpetual (eternal) copyright including moral rights. (They reduced it to a limited duration only in 1985.)

  • 1927: Finnish copyright law gives moral rights

  • 1928: Europe's Berne Convention supports life-plus-50 years, but leaves terms up to individual countries.

  • 1934: Germany's Nazi government adopts life-plus-50 years.

  • 1948: Life-plus-50 years is made obligatory for Berne Convention members

  • 1957: France passes a copyright act that keeps "material" rights at life-plus-50 years, but makes "immaterial" rights (including "moral" ones) perpetual/ eternal.

  • 1965: West Germany adopts life-plus-70 years.

  • 1976: The US grant posthumous rights for the first time, extending copyright to the author’s life-plus-50 years.

  • 1985: France extends copyright to life-plus-70 years.

  • 1987: Spain reduces copyright to life-plus-60 years (it had been 80)

  • 1988 (effective March 1989) US joins the Berne Convention

  • 1993: The European Union standardizes copyright at life-plus-70 years. (It had done this for databases in 1971.)

  • 1998: The US extends copyright to life-plus-70 years with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. The 20-year extension is up for renewal in 2019.