Copyright Compendium

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102.1 Constitutional Basis for and Purpose of Copyright Law

102.1 Constitutional Basis for and Purpose of Copyright Law


Copyright has been a part of the American legal landscape since colonial times, when many of the colonies adopted copyright laws. See U.S. COPYRIGHT OFFICE BULLETIN 3, COPYRIGHT ENACTMENTS 1783-1900, at 9-29 (listing copyright laws enacted by Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and New York between 1783 and 1786), available at www.copyright.gov/history/Copyright_Enactments_1783- 1973.pdf. Upon ratification, the U.S. Constitution provided Congress with the ability to make federal laws to protect copyright. Specifically, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 (which includes the “Copyright Clause”) states that “Congress shall have 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.” The promotion of “science,” as that term is used in the Copyright Clause, is understood to refer to the purpose of copyright law (despite the contemporary usage of the term). See Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186, 197 (2003). The Supreme Court has confirmed that this clause empowers Congress to enact a copyright system. See Golan v. Holder, 565 U.S.

302, 323-25 (2012).


U.S. courts have analyzed the purpose of the Copyright Clause in a number of cases. The Supreme Court has interpreted the Copyright Clause to mean that copyright laws should promote both the creation and dissemination of creative works. See, e.g., Golan, 132 S. Ct. at 888-89. Thus, “[t]he Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression.” Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises et al., 471 U.S. 539, 558 (1985); see also Golan, 132 S. Ct. at 890 (“By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.”).

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