June 21, 2024

236 years ago today, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, and the U.S. Government was off and running. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, both James Madison of Virginia and Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina submitted proposals that would allow Congress the power to grant copyright for a limited time. (Pinckney’s South Carolina was the first state to enact its own patent law). James Madison wrote in the Federalist, “the States cannot separately make effectual provision” for the protection of invention and so in drafting the Constitution of the United States, responsibility for providing such protection was entrusted to the Congress of the United States. Madison’s and Pinckney’s proposals resulted in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, which provides:

“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.”

The First Congress in 1789 considered patent and copyright legislation. On January 8, 1790, during his first State of the Union, President Washington called on Congress to establish act on the Constitutional authorization, urging Congress to pass legislation designed for “the promotion of Science and Literature” “so as to better educate the public.”

On April 10, 1790, Washington signed into law the first Patent Act, and Samual Hopkins must have been waiting in the lobby because the first United States patent issued to him a few months later on July 31, 1790. The Patent Action of 1790 did not establish a Patent Office, and instead the submissions were examined by a committee, including Thomas Jefferson, that not only decided whether to issue a patent, but for how long (the Patent Act set the maximum term at 14 years). A grand total of three U.S. patents issued in 1790, and a total of 57 patents were issued under the Patent Act of 1790, before it was replaced with the Patent Act of 1793, which among other things, eliminated examination!

On May 31, 1790, Washington signed into law the first Copyright Act. Prior to the passage of the Constitution, several states passed their own copyright laws between 1783 and 1787, the first being Connecticut. This Copyright Act of 1790 granted authors the exclusive right to publish and vend “maps, charts and books” for a term of 14 years, renewable for one additional 14-year term, if the author was alive at the end of the first time. The Copyright Action of 1790 had a longer run than the Patent Act of 1790, being amended in 1802 and 1819, and replaced by the Copyright Act of 1831.