How Copyright Came to the Library of Congress

With recent events, new focus has been put upon the relationship between the US Copyright Office and the Library of Congress.  I think it’s worth exploring a bit of how things got this way.  In this post, I’ll explicate a bit on how copyright ended up in the Library of Congress, and in a subsequent post I’ll explore how the Copyright Office became its own entity.  I’ve already posted a bit about the early interactions between the Library of Copyright and nascent Copyright Office, and I hope to post more about that as well.

As most people who dabble in copyright know, copyright in America has generally consisted of three parts: Notice, Registration, and Deposit.  The notice is generally an act taken by the author or his/her assignee (generally the publisher)to provide notice of copyright – in the very beginning this actually required publishing a notice in a newspaper, but mostly all that has been required is placing a copyright notice on the work.  Registration is of course the act of registering the work for copyright with the statutorily-designated register.  Deposit is the act of depositing one or more copies pursuant to the statute.

From 1790 to 1846, Copyrighted works were registered with the local federal district court, and the registration was only perfected when copies were deposited with the Secretary of State in Washington DC – at first directly by the author/publisher, and later by the clerk of the District Court in bulk.  However, in 1846 the act establishing the Smithsonian Institution contained a provision requiring deposit of copies registered for copyright with both the new Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.1  This provision was not part of the original versions of the act, but instead was proposed orally by Stephen Douglas (of Lincoln/Douglas fame) as the final amendment offered before the successful vote on the bill in the House.2  Accordingly, there is precious little legislative history for the change, although it does generally fit into the Smithson bequest’s requirement that it be used to fund “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

However, the Smithsonian Institution was never particularly happy with being a depository for copyright books, and in 1859, with the acquiescence of the Librarian of Congress, Congress shifted the venue for copyright deposit to the Patent Office.  And even as these changes for copyright deposit ensued, copyright registration had steadfastly remained with the local district courts.  In 1862 a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to move copyright registration to the Patent Office and divest the District Courts of their registration duties.  In response, a group of publishers sent a memorial (PDF, 1MB) to Congress, protesting any such change.  The bill never gained any traction, although it is possible there were simply higher priorities in Congress in 1862.

In 1865, the newly-appointed Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Spofford, was able to insert language into the law adding photographs to copyright law revitalizing the requirement of deposit of copyrighted works with the Library of Congress.3  The new librarian vigilantly lobbied to increase the role of the Librarian of Congress, and when a friend of Spofford’s was appointed the new commissioner of Patents in 1869, the resistance to Spofford’s efforts faded away.4  In 1870 the only omnibus revision of intellectual property law in American history was passed, and one of its changes was the transfer of all copyright registration and deposit activities to the Library of Congress.

This story continues with the story of how the Copyright Office formed

  1. 9 Stat. 102, 106.  The relevant §10 of the Law stated that “the author or proprietor of any book, map, chart, musical composition, print, cut, or engraving, for which a copyright shall be secured under the existing acts of Congress, or those which shall hereafter be enacted respecting copyrights, shall, within three months from the publication of said book, map, chart, musical composition, print, cut, or engraving, deliver, or cause to be delivered, one copy of the same to the librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, and one copy to the librarian of Congress Library, for the use of the said libraries.”  An amendment was proposed by Sen. Dix to replace “Congress Library” with “Library of Congress,” but this amendment did not succeed.
  2. Pg. 749 of the Congressional Globe, April 29, 1846
  3.  13 Stat. 540.
  4. This is discussed in more detail in the footnotes to William Patry’s Copyright Law and Practice.

Oral Arguments in Mazer and Star Athletica

One of the pleasures of living in DC is the ability to semi-randomly saunter over to oral arguments of interest being held at the US Supreme Court, and I did so on Monday in the “cheerleader case” of Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands.  The case concerned a suit by the market leader in cheerleader uniforms (Varsity) against a comparatively recent competitor that offered identical uniforms to those created by Varsity’s custom uniform tool on its website.  The District Court granted summary judgment to Star, holding that the cheerleader uniforms were useful articles and thus not eligible for copyright protection.  The Circuit Court reversed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.  It was hoped that the Supreme Court would offer guidance as to which of the multitude of tests for determining whether a work is a useful article was appropriate, but the transcript of Monday’s argument shows that the question of which test is appropriate never really came up.  The members of the Court were engaged with the discussion throughout, but their focus was more on the broader questions raised by granting copyright protection to garments for the lengthy term copyright offers.

Of course, the Star Athletica case is the first time the Supreme Court has addressed the useful articles doctrine since its 1954 decision in Mazer v. Stein, which held a sculpture that was primarily used as a lamp base copyrightable.  The Mazer decision is a staple of law school classes on copyright, but up until now it was assumed that no transcript of the oral argument had survived.  The Supreme Court began audio recording oral arguments in October of 1955, and transcripts of cases before that date are rare, and are generally focused on constitutional cases.1  However, the transcript (PDF, 7 MB) of oral argument from Mazer v. Stein was recently unearthed, and it is a fascinating document.  It shows a Court wrestling with some of the same concerns of duration that the Court wrestled with yesterday, as well as engaging in substantial discussion of the relationship of copyright law to design patents.

The argument in Mazer also featured testimony directly from the Copyright Office, including substantial discussion of historical practices of the copyright office regarding the registration of artwork.  There was also a lengthy demonstration and discussion of the “curved ballet dancer” figurine (shown below), one of the six statutes/lamp bases at issue in that case, discussing how it was made.


Also of some interest is the trial transcript from the Mazer case (PDF, 3 MB), which in addition to discussion of some of the same issues that came before the Supreme Court, includes some fascinating background on the case, including reference to the Commercial Supply Co. of Chicago funding the defense of the case.

  1. The Oyez Project  has preserved these audio recordings and keeps them publicly available on its website.

The Antebellum DC Circuit Court

One thing that tends to confuse folks about older cases is the changing nature of the Federal Circuit Courts – until 1891 they were trial courts that operated in tandem with the District Courts, staffed by District Court Judges as well as US Supreme Court Justices “riding circuit.”1  The National Archives has the files of the old Circuit Courts in their holdings, mostly in their regional branches, and I’ve become familiar with the Circuit Court records because pretty much every trial-level case on intellectual property in the nineteenth century was brought in the Circuit Court.  The only Circuit Court records held in the DC location of the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue are for the DC Court, and the Archives was recently good enough to share three inventories made in the 1990s of these records.  All are searchable PDFs under 2 MB.

The first of these inventories is a general inventory of interesting cases, which includes mentions of a case involving the cost of printing the Congressional Globe, a patent case, and a great deal else.

The second is perhaps the most interesting to scholars, and it is also the longest at 80 pages.  It is an inventory of all DC Circuit Court actions involving african-americans during the antebellum era.  The picture that emerges is a depiction of the banality of slavery in society over sixty years.  Listed in this file are many petitions for freedom, and these petitions are available online.

Finally, there is an inventory of household items seized by marshalls.

It’s worth remembering that every case mentioned in these inventories corresponds to a folder at the National Archives in Washington DC.

  1. The Circuit Courts were not abolished until 1912, but the creation of the Circuit Courts of Appeal substantially limited their importance.  More from Wikipedia.

The Librarian of Congress and the Register of Copyrights

I was surprised this past Friday to learn that Maria Pallante, who had served as Register of Copyrights (the head of the US Copyright Office) since 2011, had been removed from this position by Carla Hayden, who recently became the Librarian of Congress.  In theory the Register of Copyrights is subordinate to the Librarian of Congress, but no Register has been removed by a Librarian in the past 120 years, and in fact the relationship between the two offices is much more complicated than this hierarchy would suggest.  Understanding why this is the case requires a bit of history regarding the interactions of the Library and the Copyright Office.1

After eighty years of copyright registration being handled by the Federal District Court for the region of the state the author or publisher lived in, copyright was centralized in the Library of Congress in July of 1870.2  For 27 years, Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Spofford was in charge of copyright registration in the United States.  However, perhaps inevitably, Spofford’s administration of copyright was somewhat disorganized, as his main interest in copyright was ensuring that the Library of Congress received deposits of all books and other library materials registered for copyright.3  It was obvious that a head of copyright for the United States was needed, and in 1897 the position of Register of Copyrights was created by Congressional Act.  Spofford had just stepped down from the position of Librarian of Congress after 32 years, and the Library moved into its first dedicated building, now the Jefferson Building, that same year.  With the library entering the modern era Thorvald Solberg was appointed the first Register of Copyrights.

However, in 1898 Spofford’s succesor died in his second year in office, and the hunt for a new librarian began.  Solberg feared that the next Librarian would be a political appointee, and took it upon himself to engineer the appointment of a Librarian who would be nonpartisan.  This story has been rarely told, but Solberg left a handwritten account entitled “The Librarian of Congress and the Register of Copyrights” (PDF, 15 MB) in his personal papers, now held in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.4  The full account is worth reading, but briefly Solberg convinced the President to delay making an appointment and convened a conference of librarians from around the country.5  This conference put forward the name of Herbert Putnam as the best choice for the next Librarian of Congress, and Putnam duly became the Librarian of Congress in 1899.

Solberg and Putnam would continue in their respective positions for decades, until Solberg retired at the age of 78 in 1930.6  Putnam would serve another decade beyond that as Librarian of Congress.  It is impossible to ask them anymore, but it is difficult to imagine that Solberg could have been Putnam’s subordinate in any meaningful sense once Solberg had engineered Putnam’s appointment.  Over time, the Copyright Office developed into an independent agency inside the Library of Congress – oral histories done by the Library of Congress confirm that by the 1970s employees of the Copyright Office generally considered the Office’s connection to the Library tenuous at most.

The Register of Copyrights engineered the appointment of a new Librarian of Congress 117 years ago as of this post, after which time the Copyright Office has been largely left to its own devices.  It will be interesting to see what the future holds.

  1. A bit of context to this post is that I only recently completed a (enjoyable and productive) term as the 2015-2016 Abraham L. Kaminstein Scholar in Residence at the US Copyright Office, reporting to then-Register Pallante.  I’m no longer at the Copyright Office, and to the extent any opinions are offered, they’re offered in my personal capacity anyway.
  2. This is a simplified version of the story, William Patry’s Copyright Law and Practice gives more detail for those interested
  3. And nothing but books, music, and other materials of interest to libraries.  In fact, Spofford pushed for and received legislation moving copyright registration for product labels and advertising prints into the Patent Office, a move only repealed in 1940.
  4. Thank you to Will Slauter for pointing this document out to me
  5. Solberg remembers it as being President (Theodore) Roosevelt, but in fact the President was still McKinley.
  6. He would live until 1947, remaining active in copyright issues in his retirement

Hillary Clinton, IP Attorney

One little-remarked aspect of the current presidential election is that Hillary Clinton may be the first IP lawyer to be elected President of the United States.  This aspect of her biography isn’t generally discussed, but sources indicate that her practice during her 18 years at the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas was focused on intellectual property law.

This is borne out in the reported cases where Secretary Clinton served as counsel.  Of the five cases where she is listed as counsel of record in the written decision, three concern trademark law (the other two are contract disputes).  Interestingly, trademark law is the only major area of intellectual property not discussed in her Initiative on Technology & Innovation.

Discussion of the three cases follows after the jump.

Continue reading “Hillary Clinton, IP Attorney”

Hello world!

What’s a new blog without a Hello world! post, no?  Over the past few years I’ve had more and more things I wanted to share that didn’t fit into the right format for either a social media posting or a full law review type piece.  My goal here is to have a forum for sharing this stuff with the world.  Generally expect a lot of interesting archival material regarding intellectual property law, and various sundry other things I find interesting.