May 31, 1790 — President George Washington signed the first federal copyright legislation in the United States into law on this date. The purpose of the Copyright Act was the “encouragement of learning,” which it did by protecting books, maps, and other original materials. Only US citizens were protected under the law until 1891, 101 years after the Act first went into effect.
The Copyright Act provided that “the author and authors of any map, chart, book, or books already printed within these United States, being a citizen or citizens thereof. … shall have the sole right and liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending such map, chart, book or books.”
The law also applied to maps, books or charts already completed but not yet published. Paintings, drawings, and musical compositions were not explicitly covered until later versions of the law.