Powers Granted to Congress by the U.S. Constitution (1787)
The Constitutional Basis for Copyright Laws
This series reprints for your examination the actual copyright laws of the
United States through 1909. In order to ascertain whether someone back then "stole"
or "plagiarized" from others, one has to determine what was considered "stealing"
and what was not. While a copyrighted book might be able to be stolen, a book already
in the public domain could not be.
The 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;
. . . .—U.S. Constitution, Artcle 1, Section 8.
"Limited times" meant 14 years in 1790, plus a possible extension of 14 years. As of 1998,
"limited times" now means 95 years. Though this may not sound very limited, the Supreme
Court has upheld more than once the constitutionality of such a lengthy copyright term.