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History of Copyright

A Short Timeline


The idea that free speech should be unlimited in every way, and that the product of human labor can constitute a form of speech, poses some practical difficulties for professional authors, songwriters, and visual artists. Specifically: if anybody with a photocopier (or Internet access) can distribute your work for free, how are you supposed to make a living by producing it?

Fortunately for full-time creative professionals, the concepts of authorship, intellectual property, and copyright have been incorporated into the free speech framework—though sometimes in an unwieldy way.

ca. 2400 BCE

The oldest surviving work attributed to an author, the Precepts of Ptah-hotep, is transcribed.

In order for copyright to exist, there must be authorship. Most ancient texts attribute their work to a mythical figure, but the first authored work of literature—the Precepts of Ptah-hotep—could plausibly have been the actual work of Ptah-hotep II (aka Ptah-hotep Tshefi), transcribing his grandfather's wit and wisdom.

ca. 520 BCE

The first documented patent protecting intellectual property rights was granted to the chefs of the ancient Greek city of Sybaris, noted for its wealth and opulence.

Details of Sybarian life were noted by the Greek historian Phylarchus of Athens, whose works appear to have been destroyed with the Alexandrian library, but—fortunately for us—were quoted by the Roman historian Athenaeus of Naucratis, who writes:
Phylarchus, in the twenty-fifth book of his History … [writes that] if any caterer or cook invented any peculiar and excellent dish, no other artist was allowed to make this for a year; but he alone who invented it was entitled to all the profit to be derived from the manufacture of it for that time; in order that others might be induced to labour at excelling in such pursuits.
This has been, historically, the basic principle behind intellectual property law: that it serves the common good by monetizing creativity.

ca. 15 BCE

In his De Architectura, the Roman architect and historian Marcus Vitruvius Pollio describes criminal plagiarism charges resulting from a poetry competition in Alexandria:
[The judge] told them that only one of the competitors was a poet, that the others had recited other men's compositions, and that the judges ought not to decide upon thefts but upon compositions. The people were astonished, and the king in doubt; but [the judge], relying on his memory, quoted a vast number of books on certain shelves in the library, and comparing them to what had been recited, made the writers confess that they had stolen from them. The king then ordered them to be proceeded against for the theft, and after their condemnation dismissed them with ignominy.
Vitruvius cites other examples in his argument against plagiarism. "[W]e are … bound," he wrote, "to censure those who, borrowing from others, publish as their own that of which they are not the authors." Later, the Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis—aka Martial—will accuse another poet of kidnapping (plagiarus) his work.

ca. AD 560

Diarmait mac Cerbaill, High King of Ireland, resolves a copyright distribute involving the unauthorized distribution of monastic texts using a legal principle based on the idea that if a lost calf is found, it belongs to the mother's owner. "As a calf belongs to its mother," High King Diarmait is reported to have said, "so does a copy belong to its book."


In his satirical play The Poetaster, Ben Jonson refers to a literary thief as a plagiary—an Anglicization of Martial's reference to literary thieves as practitioners of kidnapping (plagiarus).


The British Statute of Anne, the world's first copyright act, becomes law.


Recognizing the need to standardize international copyright law, Victor Hugo organizes the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works—one of the first multilateral treaties of any kind, and certainly the first to govern copyright. Nine countries—Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Haiti, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and Tunisia—agree to the Convention.

The Berne Convention is still in effect today, with 165 signatories.


Creative Commons is founded. The organization oversees a collection of licenses that allow artists to "copyleft" their work, releasing it for public distribution without releasing it entirely into the public domain.
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