The Constitutional and Historical Foundations of Copyright Protection

The Constitutional and Historical Foundations of Copyright Protection
By Paul Clement, Viet Dinh & Jeffrey Harris [1]

Article I, section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress authority “[t]o promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”  There was little debate over this provision during the Convention, but James Madison (as Publius) emphasized in Federalist 43 that “[t]he utility of this power will scarcely be questioned,” and “[t]he copyright of authors has been solemnly adjudged, in Great Britain, to be a right of common law.”  With respect to both copyrights and patents, Madison asserted that “[t]he public good fully coincides in both cases with the claims of individuals.”

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This history flatly refutes any notion that copyright law is a matter of legislative grace intended solely to serve utilitarian ends. The Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution was inspired by a long intellectual tradition—extending back to the very origins of printing and publishing—in which legislators, jurists, scholars, and commentators recognized authors’ inherent property rights in the fruits of their own labor.

Just as the scope of the pre-existing right informs both the contemporary public understanding of, and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of, the right enshrined by the Second Amendment, see Heller, 554 U.S. at 592, 603, this pre-constitutional history is useful both in interpreting the scope of Congress’ copyright power and in informing policy debates about how that power should be exercised. The Supreme Court itself has harkened back to the Statute of Anne in interpreting the copyright laws. See Feltner, 523 U.S. at 349-50. A view of the copyright laws that ignores this history is sorely incomplete.