The Forgotten Origins of Copyright for Photographs

It’s fairly well-known that photographers like Matthew Brady used photographs in unique and important ways during the Civil War to document the conflict like never before.  It’s also known among copyright nerds that 1865 saw not just the end of the Civil War, but the amendment of the federal copyright statute to include photographs.  However, the conventional narrative of this law has always been that the amendment to the law to include photographs was close to a bolt from the blue.  As William Patry puts it:

This Act had a remarkably short legislative history. On February 22, 1865, the Committee on Patents and the Patent Office, which had been studying the issue, reported S.468, which was passed by the Senate the same day. The House passed the bill on March 2, and President Lincoln signed it into law the next day.

Source (internal citations/quotations omitted).  The law is one of Abraham Lincoln’s two main accomplishments on copyright, the other being his appointment of Ainsworth Spofford to be the Librarian of Congress in the same year.  However, the legislative history of the law was longer than has currently been understood, as a bill to include photographs within copyright law had actually been introduced in the House the previous year by Thomas A. Jenckes and committed to that chamber’s Committee on Patents.  However, for reasons that are unclear the House did not order the Bill printed, and as a result it has been all but forgotten until I found a manuscript copy of the bill in the Congressional files at the National Archives.

Finding the bill was a bit of a fluke – when I was writing my article on the origin of performance rights for music in 1897, I went through Thorvald Solberg’s work Copyright in Congress, 1789-1904, in search of any previous bills to provide such performance rights. What I found is that for a number of bills, he describes copyright bills, but provides no details as to the content of the bill.  The Library of Congress’s American Memory – A Century of Lawmaking site does not have a copy of the bill (House Bill 505 from the 38th Congress), so I (perhaps excessively) checked the files of the Committee at the National Archives.  Sure enough, there’s a handwritten copy there.  My scan of the bill is here, and I’ve included a transcription below the jump.

The act that would be passed in 1865 to include photographs in copyright is extremely terse, stating that  the provisions of the copyright law “shall extend to and include photographs and the negatives thereof which shall hereafter be made, and shall enure [sic] to the benefit of the authors of the same in the same manner, and to the same extent, and upon the same conditions as to the authors of prints and engravings.”1  On the other hand, the bill introduced by Jenckes in 1864 created a whole mechanism for deposit of a “memorandum” describing the photograph with the clerk of the District Court (since copyright registration was still at the District Courts until 1870).  Also included, seemingly added later, were two final sections establishing limited trademark protection for the marks of photographers (six years before the first law providing for federal trademark protection).

I don’t currently know the connection between the 1864 Jenckes Bill in the House and the bill a year later in the Senate which became law, but the introduction of the Jenckes Bill gives an explanation of how Congress moved so quickly on the issues – even if the public record doesn’t make it clear, the House Committee on Patents had been considering a bill to include photographs within copyright since the previous session of Congress.  There’s probably the necessary information to link these bills in the Papers of Thomas A. Jenckes; one of these days I hope to be able to tell the whole story.  But in the interim, this seemed a nugget of information worth sharing.  The bill text follows below the jump.

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  1. the 1865 Act then includes several paragraphs reestablishing the requirement of copyright deposit with the Library of Congress, a requirement which has been retained ever since