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Copyright Law Starts With the Constitution

Copyright law has a long history in the United States: the US Constitution creates the legal basis for copyright protection. The Constitution, which divides the powers of the federal government among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches, includes a list of activities that Congress is allowed to regulate. One of these areas is copyright protection: article I, section 8 of states that Congress has the power “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.” Because authors have the “exclusive right” to their writings, authors (which also includes artists, playwrights, etc.) get to control–for a limited time at least–who gets to copy it and for what reason.

This phrase in the Constitution relies on at least two important assumptions. The first assumption is that society benefits from works of art, inventions, and other creative outputs. This one is hard to argue against (although some folks certainly do, particularly when they don’t care for the content); but score one for the Founders here.

The second assumption is that artists, scientists, scholars, and novelists are more likely to create if they have a right to prohibit others from copying their ideas; the Constitution demonstrates the belief that proper financial incentives are necessary to promote creative expression. Would Beyonce or Beethoven want to make music if they didn’t control, at least for a while, the rights to make money off the music? This  answer to this oversimplified question is not quite as obvious, and this has led, in part, to the many laws and corresponding lawsuits that compose copyright law in the United States today. It is a rich and interesting field.

This blog (along with many others out on the Web) aims to create greater knowledge and provoke informed conversations about copyright law.


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