On January 1, 1978, the law of copyright changed dramatically when the Copyright Act of 1976 took effect and the pieces of what was once a colossal mess acquired some long-needed order. Prior to January 1, 1978, copyright was governed principally by a federal statute known as the Copyright Act of 1909, which had been revised on numerous occasions over a period of almost 70 years to accommodate new technologies and unresolved problems. In 1909, there were no computers, compact disks, photocopy machines, satellites, or television broadcasts, and even radio had reached only an experimental stage. Copyright infringement was certainly possible, and authors definitely needed protection, but it was much more difficult then than it is today to make unauthorized use of a person's creative work.
The idea of copyright was not new even in 1909. Copyright laws arose as early as the 1400s in Europe, with the development of movable type and mass printing, but they were largely employed as a mechanism for prior restraint in the form of licensing and not as a means for protecting authors. The first federal copyright statute was enacted by Congress in 1790, one year after the U.S. Constitution was ratified and a year before the Bill of Rights took effect. A two-tiered system emerged, with the federal statute protecting principally published works and state common law governing unpublished works. That system essentially continued with the 1909 law, but was eviscerated by the 1976 statute in favor of a system that made common law copyright unnecessary and theoretically nonexistent.
Congress is often criticized for its laborious, cumbersome, and time-consuming decision making, and some of that criticism may be in order for the