Copyright (or author's right) is a legal term used to describe the rights that creators have over their literary and artistic works. Works covered by copyright range from books, music, paintings, sculpture and films, to computer programs, databases, advertisements, maps and technical drawings.1


The history of copyright protection began to emerge with the invention of the printing machine which made it possible to duplicate literary works by a mechanical process. The printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany around 1440.

In 1483, Gutenberg's invention reached England, and the then Monarch King Richard III lifted the ban on import of manuscripts and books. As a result, authors started sending their books in England for printing. They enjoyed a royal license and dueto proliferation of books, England soon became the Centre of printing across the length and breadth of Europe.

In 1529, King Henry VII constituted a system of privilege, thus making printing business a monopoly of the crown. It was during this time that all the people who were earlier involved in writing manuscripts and making copies came together to form the Stationer's Guild.

In 1516, the stationer's guild constituted into a company. The members of the company had exclusive right to reprint works in perpetuity in the name of other members of the company who had sole right to publish the work. The registered members had the right to both print and publish the books.

In 1533, King Henry banned the imports of books and stationery under the pretense of growth and development of England's publishers and printers.

In 1557, the Stationer's Company received a royal charter and was granted the privilege of regulating the book trade. The company was necessary for three reasons-

  1. Protect trade quality
  2.  Minimize unprofessional practices
  3. Limit Competition


Act of 1661

In 1661, the first licensing act was passed. The right of members of the stationary company to publish was later referred to as copyright. However, the members did not have the status of an owner of the book they published. The right was given to them as part of a commercial deal.

Act of 1662

The licensing act of 1662 empowered the company to take action against the infringement of their right. A register of licensed books was maintained, and certain designated members had the right to conduct search and seizure of unlicensed books. This was the first act to check piracy.

The Licensing Act could however didn't survive the test of time. As system weakened overtime, the ban on unlicensed printing was removed; as a result, independent printers entered the market. The Licensing Act could not distinguish between mechanical and intellectual piracy. It was eventually repealed in 1681.


 The statute of Anne came into force on 10th April 1710. This act caused a paradigm shift in the copyright world. It acknowledged the rights of authors of published work. This came to be known world's first copyright law. The purpose of the act was twofold:

  1. To promote learning
  2. To give the author protection against piracy

Main rules of the Act

  1. Author of a book not yet printed shall have the sole right of printing for 14 years and if after 14 years he is alive then additional 14 years.
  2. Infringers would forfeit the infringing books found in their custody and shall pay half amount of the fine to the crown and the other half to the plaintiff.
  3. No book shall be bought for infringement unless the title of the book has been entered before publication in the 'Register Book' of Stationer's Company.


Before the act of 1911, the books and literary works were protectedunder the statute of Anne and other art such as music, painting or photographs were protected under legislation such as the Engraving Copyright Act 1734 and the Fine Arts Copyright Act 1862

The 1911 act consolidated all the acts into one and implemented the Berne Convention. Major features of this act are:

  1. Extension of term of copyright to life and 50 years.
  2. No need for prior registry in 'Register of Stationers' to receive protection under the act.
  3. Unpublished work is also entitled to protection
  4. Summary remedies in suits of infringement
  5. The act to include all form of arts such as literature, painting, music, photography etc.


Pre-Independence Copyright law in India

The Copyright Law of India was enacted by the British colony and like most of the acts of that time; it was an imitation of the English law.

The first copyright act of India was enacted in 1847, during the regime of East India Company. As per the act, the term of copyright was either, for the lifetime of author plus 7 years or 42 years. The government had the power to grant the publishing license after the death of the author if the owner of the copyright refused permission. All suits and infringement related to copyright came under the jurisdiction of the highest local civil court. The act was replaced by the copyright act of 1914.

The act of 1914 was the first 'modern' copyright law of India. It was the first law to include all works of art and literature under the ambit of copyright. It was a replica of the English law of 1911. It was done by the British to ease the passage of literature over colonial subcontinent.

Post-Independence Copyright law in India

The Copyright Act of 1957 came into force on the 21st of January, 1958 replacing the 1911 act. The act besides amending the copyright law also introduced milestone changes such as provisions for setting up copyright office under the control of Registrar of copyright for registration of books and other works of art. It also established a copyright board to deal with the disputes relating to copyright.


The history of copyright law is a long and complicated one. Even after more than 100 years, it is in developing stage. This is because technology is changing faster than ever. With new techniques, the old law seems to be falling behind, especially in the case of non-literal work. It is often difficult to tell what is similar to the extent of copyright infringement as it is a very subjective question. Thus, we need more specific laws to lessen the subjectivity.



Originally published by Khurana & Khurana, August 2020

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.