Compendium of U.S. Copyright Practices, 3rd Edition

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101.1 History of the U.S. Copyright Office

101.1 History of the U.S. Copyright Office

In May 1790, when Congress enacted the first federal copyright law, the U.S. Copyright Office did not yet exist. Instead, authors and publishers recorded their claims with federal district courts and submitted copies of their works (in those days, book, maps, and charts) in support of their applications. These works, known as deposits, were stored in a variety of places, including in the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of the Interior. As of 1846, the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress shared them. This meant that records of copyright ownership were scattered among different government offices, and despite the federal scheme of protection, there was neither a consolidated tracking system nor centralized plan for preserving or using deposited works.

In 1870, Congress moved registration and deposit functions from the dispersed federal courts to the Library of Congress, which under Ainsworth Spofford advocated for and utilized the deposit copies as a foundation for the Library’s collection. This move helped transform the Library of Congress into a national institution. However, as copyright law evolved in both scope and complexity, the Nation and the Congress began grappling with a variety of policy issues that required leadership and expertise, including, for example, provisions that extended the public performance right to musical compositions and provided corresponding criminal penalties and injunctive relief, and amendments establishing reciprocity with foreign governments. Moreover, the volume of copyright- related work required greater focus and segregation from general Library functions. See Condition of the Library of Congress: Hearings Before the Joint Committee on the Library, 54th Cong. (1897) (statement of Ainsworth Spofford) (“The fruit of [the Copyright Act] has been to enormously enrich the Library of Congress. On the other hand, it has at the same time enormously increased the difficulties of administration in such miserably narrow quarters.”), reprinted in S. REP. NO. 54-1573, at 28 (1897).

In 1897, Congress established and funded the U.S. Copyright Office as a separate department within the Library and created the position of Register of Copyrights to head it. Since that act, the Register has been appointed by, and works under the general direction of, the Librarian of Congress. This appointment authority, however, required that the Librarian thereafter be appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate. Thus, at the dawn of the twentieth century, Congress had not only created a formal foundation for copyright administration, but also created the Register as the central position of related expertise within the U.S. government, who in turn developed an expert staff.

As with other matters of intellectual property law, Congressional Rules give the respective judiciary committees of both chambers legislative jurisdiction over all copyright matters. See Senate Rule XXV; House Rule X. The Register is the principal advisor to Congress regarding domestic and international copyright issues, but also works closely and collaboratively with other federal departments and agencies on copyright matters.

The longstanding role of the U.S. Copyright Office in policy matters was codified in the Copyright Act. 17 U.S.C. § 701. The work of the Office takes several forms. It provides expert subject matter assistance to Congress on copyright policy and interpretation of the copyright law; provides drafting support, including analysis and assistance for copyright legislation and legislative reports; undertakes studies and public roundtables for Congress; and offers advice on compliance with treaties and trade agreements.

As a critical office within the U.S. government, the U.S. Copyright Office also works closely with executive branch offices, including most regularly the Department of Justice, the White House, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Department of Commerce and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the Department of State. It provides policy analysis to these offices; participates in copyright-related litigation; provides support on trade and enforcement measures; participates on U.S. delegations to intergovernmental meetings and in other international events; hosts copyright training for copyright officials from foreign countries; and provides outreach and education on a routine basis.

The Register of Copyrights has an especially important relationship with the Undersecretary for Intellectual Property, who heads the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and advises the President on intellectual property matters. These officers frequently work together in the international arena and the Undersecretary must consult with the Register “on all copyright and related matters” that involve his Office. 35 U.S.C. § 2 (C) (5). The U.S. Copyright Office also works closely with the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (the “IPEC”), based in the Executive Office of the President. The Register is a statutory member of the IPEC’s interagency intellectual property enforcement advisory committee. 15 U.S.C. § 8111 (B) (3) (A)(ii).

Finally, the U.S. Copyright Office’s unique position as the guardian of copyright registration documents deserves special mention. The Office maintains a wealth of information about the different types of works that have been registered in the United States throughout the years. This amounts to an unparalleled database of cultural heritage, as the Office has registered millions of copyright claims for authors, artists, publishers, producers, and distributors of creative works since 1897. The Office annually registers more than half a million copyright claims, records more than 10,000 documents relating to chain of title and other copyright-related matters in connection with hundreds of thousands of titles, and collects more than $300 million dollars in statutory licensing funds. Likewise, it has facilitated the acquisition of hundreds of thousands of copies of books, serial publications, sound recordings, motion pictures, photographs, maps, and prints for the Library’s collection.

U.S. Copyright Office records also provide a glimpse into the evolution of U.S. registration and recordation practices. Examples of some important historic registrations and recordations include:

• First federal registration of a work: John Barry’s book, The Philadelphia Spelling Book, registered with the U.S. District Court for the District of Pennsylvania in 1790.

• First federal recordation of a document pertaining to copyright: Issued on July 25, 1870.

• Registration of the Statue of Liberty: On August 31, 1876, Henry de Stuckle and Auguste F. Bartholdi secured registration number 9939-G for the “Statue of American Independence,” as the Statue of Liberty was first named. The copyright claim was filed in America’s centennial year, a decade before the statue was erected in New York Harbor.

• First registration issued after the establishment of the U.S. Copyright Office: “Dr. Quixote – ” A New Comedy in Three Acts” by Charles F. Coughlan, registered by J.E. Dodson on July 1, 1897.

• First motion picture registrations: The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894, submitted on January 9, 1894 by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, is the earliest extant copyrighted motion picture in the Library of Congress’s collections. The short clip, known in film circles as Fred Ott’s Sneeze, shows a mustachioed man sneezing. The motion picture was registered as a series of photographs because motion pictures were not covered by U.S. copyright law until 1912. The first work registered as a motion picture was the Republic Film Company’s September 12, 1912 registration for Black Sheep’s Wool.

• First television show registration: “Unexpected Guest” by Hopalong Cassidy, registered in 1947.

• First registration for a choreographic work embodied in Laban notation: Hanya Holm’s choreography for Kiss Me Kate, registered as a dramatic work in 1952.

• First computer program registration: John F. Banzhaf’s computer program to compute automobile braking distances, registered in 1964.

• First sound recording registration: Bob and Dorothy Roberts’s “Color Photo Processing Cassette, An Accurate Sound Signal and Oral Instruction System for Processing,” registered on February 15, 1972.

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