The US constitution article 1 section 8 gives the Congress an enumerated 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."

Generally, this is understood to be the power which allows Congress to create intellectual property laws (supporting copyrights, trademarks, and patents).

Has there been a case which clarified what constitutes a "useful art" or "progress of science"?
Specifically, this power can easily clash with the 1st amendment prohibition on the restriction of speech and press. So it's not hard to imagine that there would have been some conflicts that the court would have opined on. Has that happened? If so, what's the case?

This is not a question about "fair use", by the way. Fair use is an exception to the existing restrictions on intellectual property. This is a question about what type of expression may not be copyrighted at all.

  • 1
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… may be a starting point. Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 22:19
  • 3
    An example might be the Trade-Mark Cases in which it was held that the "progress of science and useful arts" clause does not give Congress the power to regulate trademarks. This power is now understood to come from the Commerce Clause instead. Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 22:24
  • @NateEldredge another interesting example from that Wikipedia page is federal and state laws. Someone took an exception to my saying that laws were not copyright-able while I was responding to a different question (because presumably they were copyright-able in a different country).
    – grovkin
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 23:55

1 Answer 1


The issue is discussed in quite a few cases, including an in depth discussion in Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003). The Official Syllabus of that decision summarizes its analysis:

The Copyright and Patent Clause, U. S. Const., Art. I, § 8, cl. 8, provides as to copyrights: "Congress shall have Power ... [t]o promote the Progress of Science ... by securing [to Authors] for limited Times ... the exclusive Right to their ... Writings." In the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), Congress enlarged the duration of copyrights by 20 years: Under the 1976 Copyright Act (1976 Act), copyright protection generally lasted from a work's creation until 50 years after the author's death; under the CTEA, most copyrights now run from creation until 70 years after the author's death, 17 U. S. C. § 302(a). As in the case of prior copyright extensions, principally in 1831, 1909, and 1976, Congress provided for application of the enlarged terms to existing and future copyrights alike.

Petitioners, whose products or services build on copyrighted works that have gone into the public domain, brought this suit seeking a determination that the CTEA fails constitutional review under both the Copyright Clause's "limited Times" prescription and the First Amendment's free speech guarantee. Petitioners do not challenge the CTEA's "life-plus-70-years" timespan itself. They maintain that Congress went awry not with respect to newly created works, but in enlarging the term for published works with existing copyrights. The "limited Tim[e]" in effect when a copyright is secured, petitioners urge, becomes the constitutional boundary, a clear line beyond the power of Congress to extend. As to the First Amendment, petitioners contend that the CTEA is a content-neutral regulation of speech that fails inspection under the heightened judicial scrutiny appropriate for such regulations. The District Court entered judgment on the pleadings for the Attorney General (respondent here), holding that the CTEA does not violate the Copyright Clause's "limited Times" restriction because the CTEA's terms, though longer than the 1976 Act's terms, are still limited, not perpetual, and therefore fit within Congress' discretion. The court also held that there are no First Amendment rights to use the copyrighted works of others. The District of Columbia Circuit affirmed. In that court's unanimous view, Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U. S. 539, foreclosed petitioners' First Amendment challenge to the CTEA. The appeals court reasoned that copyright does not impermissibly restrict free speech, for it grants the author an exclusive right only to the specific form of expression; it does not shield any idea or fact contained in the copyrighted work, and it allows for "fair use" even of the expression itself. A majority of the court also rejected petitioners' Copyright Clause claim. The court ruled that Circuit precedent precluded petitioners' plea for interpretation of the "limited Times" prescription with a view to the Clause's preambular statement of purpose:

"To promote the Progress of Science." The court found nothing in the constitutional text or history to suggest that a term of years for a copyright is not a "limited Tim[e]" if it may later be extended for another "limited Tim[e]." Recounting that the First Congress made the 1790 Copyright Act applicable to existing copyrights arising under state copyright laws, the court held that that construction by contemporaries of the Constitution's formation merited almost conclusive weight under Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, 111 U. S. 53, 57. As early as McClurg v. Kingsland, 1 How. 202, the Court of Appeals recognized, this Court made it plain that the Copyright Clause permits Congress to amplify an existing patent's terms. The court added that this Court has been similarly deferential to Congress' judgment regarding copyright. E. g., Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U. S. 417. Concerning petitioners' assertion that Congress could evade the limitation on its authority by stringing together an unlimited number of "limited Times," the court stated that such legislative misbehavior clearly was not before it. Rather, the court emphasized, the CTEA matched the baseline term for United States copyrights with the European Union term in order to meet contemporary circumstances.

Held: In placing existing and future copyrights in parity in the CTEA, Congress acted within its authority and did not transgress constitutionallimitations. Pp. 199-222.

  1. The CTEA's extension of existing copyrights does not exceed Congress' power under the Copyright Clause. Pp. 199-218.

(a) Guided by text, history, and precedent, this Court cannot agree with petitioners that extending the duration of existing copyrights is categorically beyond Congress' Copyright Clause authority.

The case most squarely on point to your question held that a telephone book is not sufficiently original as a constitutional matter to be subject to copyright. It held that originality, for copyright purposes, is constitutionally mandated for all works. Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc., 499 U.S. 340 (1991).

See also:

  • Under the Copyright and Patent Clause, Congress' copyright authority is tied to the progress of science; its patent authority, to the progress of the useful arts. Golan v. Holder, 565 U.S. 302 (2012).

  • Under this clause, Congress, to encourage people to devote themselves to intellectual and artistic creation, may guarantee to authors and investors a reward in form of control over sale or commercial use of copies of their books. Goldstein v. California, 412 U.S. 546 (1973).

  • This clause is both grant of power and limitation; this clause is limited to promotion of advances in useful arts. Graham v. John Deere Co. of Kansas City, 383 U.S. 1 (1966).

  • The economic philosophy behind this clause empowering Congress to grant patents and copyrights is the conviction that encouragement of individual effort by personal gain is best way to advance public welfare through talents of authors and inventors in Science and useful Arts. Mazer v. Stein , 347 U.S. 201 (1954).

  • The Copyright Act of Congress, R.S. § 4952, as amended by the Act Mar. 3, 1891, c. 565, 26 Stat. 1106, giving to authors the exclusive right to dramatize any of their works, is valid as applied to pantomine dramatization by means of moving picture films. Kalem Co. v. Harper Bros., 222 U.S. 55 (1911).

  • This section does not limit the useful to that which satisfies immediate bodily needs, and painting and engraving not intended for a mechanical end are among the useful arts, the progress of which Congress is empowered by this section to promote. Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co., 188 U.S. 239 (1903).

  • No authority exists for obtaining a copyright beyond the extent to which Congress has authorized it;  a copyright cannot be sustained as a right existing at common law, but depends wholly on the legislation of Congress. Banks v. Manchester, 128 U.S. 244 (1888).

  • Legislation concerning trademark protection is not authorized by this clause. In re Trade-Mark Cases, 100 U.S. 82 (1879).

A list of U.S. Supreme Court cases on the issue of copyright at Wikipedia includes many additional copyright cases that don't implicate the U.S. Constitutional language.

It is also worth noting that while the U.S. Supreme Court is the final and most authoritative interpreter of the U.S. Constitution, that any court presented with an issue of constitutional interpretation can, and indeed, is duty bound, to interpret the constitutional in a legally authoritative way, which in the case of appellate courts (state and federal) serves as a legal precedent for other cases that "makes law" on the issue.

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