In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Copyright Laws

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Primary Sources
  • Historical Overviews
  • The Chace Act and Its Aftermath

American Literature Copyright Laws
Melissa Homestead
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0040


Copyright law shapes the production, circulation, and reception of literature. In language that has been much debated, the US Constitution authorized Congress to “promote the progress” of “useful arts by securing for limited times to authors . . . the exclusive right to their respective writings.” During the nation’s first century as a constitutional republic, Congress enacted laws offering copyright protection only for works authored by US citizens or residents, leaving US publishers free to reprint works by non-US authors without payment or permission (although in practice, US publishers often compensated British authors for early access to new works). As a result, works by British authors circulated widely at low cost in the US literary marketplace (the reverse was true in Britain, although to a more limited extent). In the 19th century, and in scholarship about the period, the effects of the lack of international copyright protection on the development of American authorship, readership, and the publishing industry have been hotly contested. The United States passed the Chace Act in 1891, allowing protection for non-US-authored works, but copyright remained an important force in shaping American literature; in the late 20th century, the extension of the term of copyright protection, which has prevented works from entering the public domain, has been controversial, especially in the wake of the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998. The quantity of literary historical scholarship treating the 20th century is considerably smaller, however, often focusing on particular legal conflicts, including the key role of literary estates and literary executors in shaping an author’s post-mortem reputation, rather than on the law as a broader shaping force. This article focuses primarily on historicist scholarship and on tools for navigating primary sources needed to conduct scholarly inquiry concerning the effects of copyright on American literary authors and texts. Not included are works treating primarily the circulation of non-US-authored works in the American market, the period before the creation of the US republic and its statutory copyright law, copyright’s regulation of the circulation or performance of other kinds of works (e.g., drama, photography, film), copyright advice for literary historians as authors, and copyright in relation to the teaching of writing. Historicist scholarship often puts history into the service of advocacy; however, this article does not cover works that are primarily aimed at contemporary copyright policy, including most law review articles about copyright.

Bibliographies and Reference Works

The advent of digitization of documents, including government documents, legal decisions, and periodicals, has made accessing key sources for historical research on copyright much easier. However, print bibliographies are still useful for targeted access to the most relevant documents. Roberts 1971 and Solberg 1886 cover magazine and pamphlet literature about the nature and scope of the law and proposals for reform, while Solberg 1904 covers Congressional documents. Tanselle 1969 both lists sources (including other bibliographies) and explains what useful information the scholar may derive from sources.

  • Roberts, Matt. A Selected Bibliography of Periodical Literature Relating to Literary Property in the United States. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1971.

    Covers 6,000 items. Organized by sub-topics and chronologically within topics, with substantial cross-references. Essential resource for finding relevant magazine articles from early 19th through mid-20th century.

  • Solberg, Thorvald. “Bibliography of Literary Property.” In Copyright: Its Law and Its Literature. Edited by R. R. Bowker. New York: Office of Publishers’ Weekly, 1886.

    Organized by author’s name rather than subject matter and covering Europe as well as the United States, with detailed sub-indices of articles published in selected periodicals under alphabetical listings by periodical names. Difficult to use, but still a crucial aid to navigating pamphlet literature on copyright. Also gives sense of what materials on copyright were held in American libraries in the late 19th century.

  • Solberg, Thorvald. Copyright in Congress 1789–1904: A Bibliography, and Chronological Record of All Proceedings in Congress in Relation to Copyright from April 15, 1789, to April 28, 1904. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1904.

    Chronological bibliography of petitions to Congress and reports by Congressional committees. Prepared by the Register of Copyrights preparatory to copyright reform. Useful for negotiating Congressional documents collected in the United States. Serial Set.

  • Tanselle, G. Thomas. “Copyright Records and the Bibliographer.” Studies in Bibliography 22 (1969): 77–124.

    Explains what information copyright records can provide for research into publishing history. Details shifting technical requirements over time and manuscript and print records generated. Provides essential inventory of copyright records held by the Library of Congress and a bibliography of publications of copyright records, including records still held by state agencies and libraries.

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