George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

Copyright’s Republic: Copyright for the Last and the Next 225 Years

By Mark Schultz and Devlin Hartline

This past Sunday marked the 225th anniversary of the first U.S. Copyright Act. As we move well into the twenty-first century, a claim that copyright no longer “works” in the “digital age” has become commonplace – so commonplace, in fact, that it’s arguably the dominant cliché in modern copyright discussions. Like many clichés, it contains a tiny grain of truth wrapped in a huge ball of glib, unhelpful, and even harmful generalizations.

Before one can understand what the future of copyright and the creative industries could and should look like, one should first appreciate what the first 225 years of copyright has given to the United States. Copyright laid the foundation for, and continues to support, the largest, most enduring, and most influential commercial culture in human history. That commercial culture is uniquely democratic, progressive, and accessible to both creators and audiences.

Could the Copyright Act profitably be revised? In theory, perhaps, and thus there is a grain of truth in the clichés about modernizing copyright. The 1976 Copyright Act and many of its subsequent amendments are overburdened with detailed regulatory provisions contingent on outdated assumptions about technology and business. They also sometimes embody political compromises that reflect circumstances that have long since passed. However, we should pause before hastening to replace yesterday’s contingencies with those of today. And we should also pause – indefinitely – before overturning the entire enterprise on the grandiose assumption that the Internet has changed everything.

Before we can understand what the future of the creative industries could and should look like, we need to appreciate what we have achieved and how we achieved it. The American creative industries are everything the Founding generation that drafted the 1790 Copyright Act could have dreamed – and so much more. Through its press, news media, and publishing industries, the U.S. has perpetuated the spirit of the Enlightenment’s Republic of Letters, with lively, reasoned, and sustained public discussions and debates about values, science, and politics.

The U.S. has produced a creative industry that enlightens and edifies while also diverting and distracting billions of people with its cultural products. This vast commercial creative marketplace allows professional writers, artists, musicians, actors, filmmakers, game designers, and others to make a living doing something that fulfills them and their audience. The U.S. has achieved much based on the twin foundations of free expression and copyright, securing the right to express oneself freely while securing the fruits of the labors of those who craft expressions.

The past thus has much to teach the future, while inevitably yielding to change and progress. Copyright should continue to secure the many values it supports, while being flexible enough to support innovation in creativity and business models.

On this occasion of the 225th anniversary of the first U.S. Copyright Act, the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) is recognizing the essential contribution of copyright and commercial culture to the United States. To that end, CPIP will be publishing a series of essays highlighting the fact that, contrary to the facile narratives about copyright that dominate modern discussions, copyright isn’t simply a law designed to incentivize the creation of more creative stuff. It has much richer purposes and benefits. Copyright:

  • Supports a professional class of creators.
  • Enables a commercial culture that contributes to human flourishing.
  • Serves as a platform for innovation in both the arts and sciences.
  • Promotes a free republic.

U.S. copyright law has achieved these lofty goals for the last 225 years, and it will continue to do so—but only if we let it and help it do so. In many important ways, U.S. culture and politics has been so shaped by the commercial culture created by copyright that it rightly can be called Copyright’s Republic.

Part I: Copyright Promotes an Independent and Professional Class of Creators and Creative Businesses