This week’s Constitution Post deals with something with which we’re probably all familiar — patents and copyrights!
Nuts and Bolts
Let’s start with the text of the Copyright and Patent Clause:
“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…“
This clause has become known as the Copyright Clause, the Copyright and Patent Clause, the Intellectual Property Clause, or the Progress Clause. In this article, I will reference it as the Copyright and Patent Clause.
The Copyright and Patent Clause has come to be interpreted as authorizing Congress to make laws instituting copyright options for a wide variety of works, including literary compositions, paintings, photographs, movies, sculptures, musical compositions, and more; and patent options for inventions, designs, and plant innovations. Patents are handled by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and copyrights are handled by the U.S. Copyright Office.
The first copyright law was titled, simply, the “Copyright Act of 1790.” Under that Act, copyrights expired after 14 years. Today, a copyright typically expires 70 years after the author or artist’s death.
The first U.S. patent statute was titled “An Act to promote the Progress of Useful Arts” and granted 14-year patents to inventors for their inventions without the option of an extension. Since that time, over eight million patents have been granted, according to Wikipedia.
The Copyright and Patent Clause is the product of three different proposals made at the Constitutional Convention — one introduced by Charles Pickney, and the other two introduced by James Madison — and it’s wording was finalized by the Committee of Detail. Neither at the Constitutional Convention nor at the individual state’s ratification debates was it a matter of significant debate, and those concerns voiced were by no means vehement or fueled by a fear that the Clause would damage general liberty.
We’ve probably all seen the phrase patent pending on some machine or piece of equipment and wondered what it meant. I remember seeing the phrase on our family’s vacuum and asking my Mom about it. It made sense, but the concept was still somewhat obscure.
We’ve all probably also seen the copyright information in the first few pages of a book or on the front of a cassette and thought, “It’s Greek to me!” I’ve joked with my siblings before by reading all of a book’s copyright information before reading the actual story.
Over the last several years, I’ve adventured into the world of song-writing! The otherwise impersonal copyright process became palpable to me when I procured my first copyright for a song I wrote a couple of years ago. It gave me a great feeling to have one of my works recognized and protected by law!
As I have reflected on my experience of the copyright process, I have realized the importance of the Copyright and Patent Clause. This clause is the guardian of competition in the arts and sciences, invigorating the excitement of discovery and the pride of creativity. It could well be said that, without an explicit promotion like the Copyright and Patent Clause, the advancement of “Science and the useful Arts” would stagnate. After all, where would be the satisfaction in invention or creativity if your work could be legally stolen?
I hope this post has helped you realize the importance of what may seem to be an insignificant Clause! Be sure to keep reading and studying for yourself!
Thomas B. Nachbar, Heritage Guide to the Constitution, “Patent and Copyright Clause”:
Wikipedia, “Copyright Clause”:
“U.S. Patent Activity Calendar Years 1790 to the Present”:
For more on plant patents:
For more on design patents:
Number of U.S. patents granted:
More on copyright law: