Date: Fri, 27 Sep 2002 15:10:47 -0400
From: David Dailey <>
To: Multiple recipients of list <>
Subject: Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster and Sonny Bono

In preparation for the upcoming Supreme Court hearing on the Copyright Term Extension, the respondent's brief (visible at makes reference to both Samuel Johnson's (1755)  "A dictionary of the English language" and a more modern edition (1958 -- didn't anyone have a newer copy around when they wrote this?) of Webster's dictionary essentially to argue that "limited" doesn't have to mean "brief".

A Johnsonian scholar and friend of mine writes "It's a pity that SJ should be quoted in this case, because he was wary of authors and publishers using copyright laws to prevent the dissemination of knowledge".  My friend goes on to add that citing the differences between the obsolete first definition and the second in the OED might have made a better argument.

I think a more formal semantic analysis using linguistic methodologies might have given an even more solid argument:

"the legislature's understanding of copyright law is limited" isnot~ "the legislature's understanding of copyright law is brief"
"a brief view of the importance of the constitution" isnot~ "a limited view of the importance of the constitution"

See? The two words aren't the same! Justice prevails!

On the other side of the coin, it was apparently Noah Webster's energy more than anyone else's to get Congress to pass the U.S.'s original federal copyright law. He also thought it was a good idea to have a constitution.

So the Attorney General's office may have been right after all, it's just that the witnesses they lined up didn't happen to agree with their conclusions.

David Dailey                                see
Associate Professor                      copyright musings: humor and dread
Slippery Rock University