James Madison Papers

Act Securing the Copyright for Authors, 16 November 1785

Act Securing the Copyright for Authors

[16 November 1785]

I. BE it enacted by the General Assembly, That the author of any book or pamphlet already printed,1 being a citizen of any one of the United States, who has not transferred to any other person or persons the copy or copies of such book, or pamphlet, share, or shares thereof, his heirs and assigns, or the person or persons who have purchased or acquired such copy or copies, share or shares, in order to print or reprint the same, his heirs and assigns shall have the exclusive right of printing and re-printing such book or pamphlet, within this commonwealth, for the term of twenty-one years,2 to be computed from the first publication thereof; and that the author of any book or pamphlet already composed and not printed or published, or that shall hereafter be composed, being a citizen, as aforesaid, his heirs and assigns shall have the exclusive right of printing and re-printing such book or pamphlet, within this commonwealth, for the like term of twenty-one years, to be computed from the first publication thereof. And if any person or persons whatsoever, shall print, re-print, or cause to be printed or reprinted, within this commonwealth, any such book or pamphlet; or shall import into this commonwealth, from any foreign kingdom or state, any printed or re-printed copies of such book or pamphlet, without the consent of the author or proprietor thereof first obtained in writing, signed in presence of two credible witnesses at least; or who, knowing the same to be so printed, re-printed, or imported, without such consent first had and obtained, shall publish, sell, or expose to sale, or cause to be published, sold, or exposed to sale, any copy or copies of any such book or pamphlet; the person or persons offending herein, shall forfeit to the party injured, double the value of all the copies so printed, re-printed, or imported; or so published, sold, or exposed to sale; to be recovered at the suit of such party, in any court of record within this commonwealth.

II. Provided nevertheless, That no person shall be entitled to the benefit of this act, until he shall have registered the title of such book or pamphlet with the clerk of the council, and procured a certificate of such registry from the said clerk; which certificate the clerk is hereby required to give, taking only three shillings for his trouble.

Printed copy (Hening, Statutes description begins William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (13 vols.; Richmond and Philadelphia, 1819–23). description ends , XII, 30–31).

1JM was entreated by Noah Webster in 1784 to introduce this bill (see Webster to JM, 5 July 1784). Webster was conducting a one-man campaign for state copyright laws because of the lack of national legislation. He visited Richmond in Nov. 1785 and recorded in his diary a conversation with JM on 11 Nov. (NN: Webster Diary). No manuscript of the bill JM introduced has been found, but since he offered the measure on 16 Nov. and carried it to the Senate on 18 Nov., his authorship is beyond doubt (JHDV description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia; Begun and Held at the Capitol, in the City of Williamsburg. Beginning in 1780, the portion after the semicolon reads, Begun and Held in the Town of Richmond. In the County of Henrico. The journal for each session has its own title page and is individually paginated. The edition used is the one in which the journals for 1777–1786 are brought together in two volumes, with each journal published in Richmond in either 1827 or 1828 and often called the “Thomas W. White reprint.” description ends , Oct. 1785, pp. 40, 43).

2The twenty-one-year term of the copyright was generous when compared with the fourteen years granted in most of the states, but Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island copyrights were also for twenty-one years. The last of the original thirteen states to enact a copyright statute was New York in 1786 (Lyman Ray Patterson, Copyright in Historical Perspective [Nashville, Tenn., 1968], pp. 183–87). JM remained aware of the cumbersome burden placed on authors and inventors when he compiled a list of federal responsibilities at the Federal Convention which included the power “To secure to literary authors their copy rights for a limited time” (Madison, Convention Notes, p. 477). JM also noted the problem in Federalist No. 43. The federal Constitution contained a copyright clause, of course, and a federal copyright statute was enacted in 1790—but JM’s direct involvement in both instances is a matter of conjecture.

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