Copyright came about with the invention of
the printing press and with wider literacy. As a legal concept, its origins in Britain were from a reaction to printers' monopolies at the beginning of the 18th century. The English
Parliament was concerned about the unregulated
copying of books and passed the
Licensing of the Press Act 1662,
 which established a register of licensed books and required a copy to be deposited with the
Stationers' Company, essentially continuing the licensing of material that had long been in effect.
Copyright laws allow products of creative human activities, such as literary and artistic production, to be preferentially exploited and thus incentivized. Different cultural attitudes, social organizations, economic models and legal frameworks are seen to account for why copyright emerged in
Europe and not, for example, in Asia. In the
Middle Ages in Europe, there was generally a lack of any concept of literary property due to the general relations of production, the specific organization of literary production and the role of culture in society. The latter refers to the tendency of oral societies, such as that of Europe in the medieval period, to view knowledge as the product and expression of the collective, rather than to see it as individual property. However, with copyright laws, intellectual production comes to be seen as a product of an individual, with attendant rights. The most significant point is that patent and copyright laws support the expansion of the range of creative human activities that can be commodified. This parallels the ways in which
capitalism led to the
commodification of many aspects of social life that earlier had no monetary or economic value per se.
Copyright has grown from a legal concept regulating copying rights in the publishing of books and maps to one with a significant effect on nearly every modern industry, covering such items as
sound recordings, films, photographs, software, and architectural works.
Often seen as the first real copyright law, the 1709 British
Statute of Anne gave the publishers rights for a fixed period, after which the copyright expired.
 The act also alluded to individual rights of the artist. It began, "Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing ... Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors ... to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families:".
 A right to benefit financially from the work is articulated, and court rulings and legislation have recognized a right to control the work, such as ensuring that the integrity of it is preserved. An irrevocable right to be recognized as the work's creator appears in some countries' copyright laws.
Copyright Clause of the United States Constitution (1787) authorized copyright legislation: "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." That is, by guaranteeing them a period of time in which they alone could profit from their works, they would be enabled and encouraged to invest the time required to create them, and this would be good for society as a whole. A right to profit from the work has been the philosophical underpinning for much legislation extending the duration of copyright, to the life of the creator and beyond, to their heirs.
The original length of copyright in the United States was 14 years, and it had to be explicitly applied for. If the author wished, they could apply for a second 14‑year monopoly grant, but after that the work entered the
public domain, so it could be used and built upon by others.
Copyright law was enacted rather
late in German states, and the historian Eckhard Höffner argues that the absence of copyright laws in the early 19th century encouraged publishing, was profitable for authors, led to a proliferation of books, enhanced knowledge, and was ultimately an important factor in the ascendency of Germany as a power during that century.
International copyright treaties
The Pirate Publisher—An International Burlesque that has the Longest Run on Record
, 1886, satirizes the then-existing situation where a publisher could profit by simply stealing newly published works from one country, and publishing them in another, and vice versa.
Berne Convention first established recognition of copyrights among
sovereign nations, rather than merely bilaterally. Under the Berne Convention, copyrights for
creative works do not have to be asserted or declared, as they are automatically in force at creation: an author need not "register" or "apply for" a copyright in countries adhering to the Berne Convention.
 As soon as a work is "fixed", that is, written or recorded on some physical medium, its author is automatically entitled to all copyrights in the work, and to any derivative works unless and until the author explicitly disclaims them, or until the copyright expires. The Berne Convention also resulted in foreign authors being treated equivalently to domestic authors, in any country signed onto the Convention. The UK signed the Berne Convention in 1887 but did not implement large parts of it until 100 years later with the passage of the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Specially, for educational and scientific research purposes, the Berne Convention provides the developing countries issue compulsory licenses for the translation or reproduction of copyrighted works within the limits prescribed by the Convention. This was a special provision that had been added at the time of 1971 revision of the Convention, because of the strong demands of the developing countries. The United States did not sign the Berne Convention until 1989.
The United States and most
Latin American countries instead entered into the
Buenos Aires Convention in 1910, which required a copyright notice on the work (such as
all rights reserved), and permitted signatory nations to limit the duration of copyrights to shorter and renewable terms.
Universal Copyright Convention was drafted in 1952 as another less demanding alternative to the Berne Convention, and ratified by nations such as the
Soviet Union and developing nations.
The regulations of the
Berne Convention are incorporated into the
World Trade Organization's
TRIPS agreement (1995), thus giving the Berne Convention effectively near-global application.
In 1961, the
United International Bureaux for the Protection of Intellectual Property signed the
Rome Convention for the Protection of Performers, Producers of Phonograms and Broadcasting Organizations. In 1996, this organization was succeeded by the founding of the
World Intellectual Property Organization, which launched the 1996
WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty and the 2002
WIPO Copyright Treaty, which enacted greater restrictions on the use of technology to copy works in the nations that ratified it. The
Trans-Pacific Partnership includes
intellectual Property Provisions relating to copyright.
Copyright laws are standardized somewhat through these international conventions such as the
Berne Convention and
Universal Copyright Convention. These multilateral treaties have been ratified by nearly all countries, and
international organizations such as the
European Union or
World Trade Organization require their member states to comply with them.