Historical Development of Copyright Law

This article aims to provide an overview of the evolution of copyright laws throughout history and the establishment of an international framework to govern copyright protection.

Historical Background

The history of copyright can be traced back to ancient times when literary works were meticulously hand-written on papyrus rolls in civilisations like Egypt, Greece, Rome, and India. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, paper became the preferred medium for literary works, although they were still reproduced as manuscripts.

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However, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1455 revolutionised the publishing industry. This technological breakthrough significantly reduced the labour and time required to produce copies of books, allowing for mass production and lower costs through economies of scale.

While the printing press brought about convenience and efficiency, it also presented a new challenge: an unauthorised reproduction of famous works by enterprising individuals, posing a threat to the original publishers who had invested their resources in the first editions.

In response to this economic challenge, the earliest copyright laws were enacted to protect the interests of those who had invested their time and capital in printing and publishing books.

However, the greatest challenge to the publishing industry since Gutenberg’s printing press emerged in the second half of the last century with the rise of digital technologies. The digital revolution has transformed how content is created, distributed, and consumed, posing new complexities and considerations in copyright law.

Statute of Monopolies

Guilds were prominent in medieval Europe as powerful organisations controlling various industries. The Stationers’ Company, formed in 1403 and granted a royal charter in 1557, was a guild that monopolised the publishing industry.

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It regulated and disciplined the industry, defining proper conduct and enjoying corporate privileges. However, the guild system and its control over industries began to change with the enactment of the Statute of Monopolies in 1624, which marked a significant shift in ownership rights and challenged the authority of guilds.

The Statute of Monopolies, established in 1624, was a significant British law that challenged the power of guilds and granted authors and inventors ownership rights over their creations. Before this law, guilds held control over industries and could claim ownership over inventions, even if they had no involvement in their creation.

The Statute of Monopolies changed this by allowing authors and inventors to retain their ownership rights and granting them 14 years of exclusive control over the use of their inventions. This law was crucial in shifting power to creators and setting the foundation for intellectual property rights.

Statute of Anne

The Statute of Anne was enacted in 1710 in England, and it is considered one of the first copyright laws in the world. One of the notable aspects of the Statute of Anne was establishing a fixed term of copyright protection.

It granted authors and creators a 14-year term of protection for their works, providing them with exclusive rights over the reproduction and distribution of their creations during that period.

This was a significant development as it recognised the importance of protecting authors’ rights and incentivising creativity by granting them control over their works.

The Statute of Anne also allowed authors to seek a 14-year renewal term after the initial protection period expired. This provision permitted authors to extend their copyright protection if they desired.

Paris Convention

The Paris Convention was established in 1883 and had the following characteristics:

National Treatment: The principle that foreign creators or owners of copyrighted works should be treated the same as domestic creators or owners regarding legal protection and rights in a particular country.

Common Rules: Establishing uniform rules and standards for copyright protection and enforcement across different countries or regions to facilitate international cooperation and ensure consistent treatment of copyrighted works.

Independence of IPR: Intellectual Property Rights, including copyrights, are separate and distinct from other forms of property rights and can be independently owned, transferred, licensed, and enforced.

Compulsory Licensing: A legal mechanism that allows the use of copyrighted works without the copyright owner’s explicit permission, typically in public interest cases, provided that the user pays a royalty or license fee determined by law or competent authority.

Berne Convention

The Berne Convention was established in 1886 and had the following characteristics:

National Treatment: It refers to the principle that foreign creators or owners of copyrighted works should receive the same legal protection and rights as domestic creators or owners in a particular country.

Automatic Protection: The automatic granting of copyright protection to original creative works upon their creation, without the need for formal registration or other formalities.

Independence of IPR: Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), including copyrights, are independent of other property rights and can be separately owned, transferred, licensed, and enforced.

Moral Rights: Non-economic rights granted to authors or creators that protect their personal and reputational interests concerning their works, such as the right to be attributed as the author and the right to object to modifications that could harm their reputation.

Economic Rights: The exclusive rights granted to copyright owners to control the commercial exploitation of their works, including reproduction, distribution, public performance, and adaptation. Related Law Note: Economic and Moral Rights of Copyright Owners

Fair Use: A legal doctrine that allows limited use of copyrighted works without permission from the copyright holder under certain circumstances, such as criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. The extent of fair use is determined by considering factors like the purpose, nature, amount, and effect on the market of the use.

United International Bureaux for the Protection of Intellectual Property (BIRPI)

The BIRPI (International Bureau for the Protection of Intellectual Property) was established in 1893 by merging two international bureaus created by the Paris Convention and the Berne Convention. Its purpose was to handle administrative duties related to intellectual property protection. Initially located in Bern, Switzerland, the BIRPI relocated to Geneva in 1960. In 1970, the BIRPI was renamed as WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization).

Rome Convention

The Rome Convention was established in 1961. It protects performers, phonogram producers, and broadcasting organisations.

1. Performers, including actors, musicians, and dancers, are protected against unauthorised acts such as broadcasting and public communication of their live performances, fixation of live performances without consent, and reproduction of fixations without permission or for purposes other than those agreed upon.

2. Producers of phonograms have the right to authorise or prohibit their sound recordings’ direct or indirect reproduction. Secondary uses of commercially published phonograms, such as broadcasting or public communication, require a single equitable remuneration to be paid to performers, producers, or both. However, countries can choose whether to apply or limit this rule.

3. Broadcasting organisations have the right to authorise or prohibit certain acts, including rebroadcasting, fixation of broadcasts, reproduction of such fixations, and public communication of television broadcasts in places where an entrance fee is charged.

The WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty (WPPT)

The WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty (WPPT) was established in 1996. It focuses on the rights of performers and producers of phonograms in the digital environment.

For performers, the treaty grants them economic rights in their performances that are fixed in phonograms. These rights include:

1. Right of reproduction: The right to authorise the direct or indirect reproduction of the phonogram in any manner or form.

2. Right of distribution: The right to authorise the public availability of the original and copies of the phonogram through sale or other transfer forms.

3Right of rental: The right to authorise the commercial rental of the original and copies of the phonogram, subject to national laws.

4. Right of making available: The right to authorise the public access to the fixed performance in a phonogram, allowing individuals to choose when and where they access it. This includes on-demand, interactive access through the Internet.

In addition to economic rights, performers also have moral rights. These include the right to be identified as the performer and object to any modification or distortion that could harm the performer’s reputation.

The term of protection granted by the treaty is at least 50 years, ensuring a substantial period of safeguarding performers’ and producers’ rights.

WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT)

WIPO Copyright Treaty is an agreement under the Berne Convention. It was established in 1996. It deals with protecting the rights and works of the authors in a digital environment. This treaty deals with the following subject matters that are to be protected by copyright:

  1. Computer programmes
  2. Compilation or databases

Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)

The Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is an international agreement administered by the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is also known as the “Berne and Paris-plus” Agreement.

Established in 1995, it sets out minimum standards for protecting various forms of intellectual property rights, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, industrial designs, geographical indication and trade secrets.


The history of copyright has evolved over centuries to address the challenges and advancements in the world of creative works. From the ancient practice of hand-written manuscripts to Gutenberg’s printing press, the need to protect the rights of creators became evident. The Statute of Monopolies marked a turning point by granting ownership rights to authors and inventors, challenging the power of guilds.

Subsequent developments such as the Statute of Anne, the Paris Convention, the Berne Convention, and international treaties like the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty and the WIPO Copyright Treaty further shaped the framework for copyright protection. The emergence of digital technologies and the TRIPS agreement under the World Trade Organization have presented new challenges and global standards for intellectual property rights.

Gayatri Singh
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