CCC salutes and celebrates the historic milestone passed recently by the US Copyright Office: its 150th year of continuous operation. In 1870, former Union General U.S. Grant was President. And the “Golden Spike” linking the first transcontinental railway system had just been driven the year before. Newspapers were already using telegraph-based “wire services” to distribute stories from coast-to-coast. The practice of registering copyrights in your local federal court (and hoping that somehow others would be aware of your work) was already anachronistic in a huge country of 37 states, the first golden age of American literature, music, and visual arts was just over the horizon, and the new Office was in position to oversee and to advance this burgeoning sphere of copyrighted works while centralizing copyright registration in Washington, D.C.
In 1897, Thorvald Solberg was appointed the first Register of Copyrights. He oversaw the Office’s entry into the 20th century and played an important role in the development of the 1909 Copyright Act, which stood as the foundation of US copyright law until 1976.
In 1906, Mark Twain addressed Congress, appearing in his famous white suit for the first time, in pursuit of additional copyright protection for authors (which did not actually occur until 1976):
“I am interested particularly and especially in the part of the bill which concerns my trade. I like that extension of copyright life to the author’s life and fifty years afterward. I think that would satisfy any reasonable author, because it would take care of his children. Let the grand-children take care of themselves. That would take care of my daughters, and after that I am not particular. I shall then have long been out of this struggle, independent of it, indifferent to it.”
The early twentieth century was a dynamic time for copyright, and the Office had to develop programs and procedures for such new media as motion pictures (and soon those including sound) as well as radio broadcasts and, after WWII, television programs. Copyright protection for computer programs was still a ways off, but would soon begin to appear in the crystal balls of some visionaries such as Vannevar Bush.
In 1973, Barbara Ringer was appointed as the first female Register of Copyrights after 24 years at the Office, the last seven as Assistant Register. Her work throughout that time helped give decisive shape to the 1976 Copyright Act – a dramatic update to copyright law which remains the basic statute even today, undergirding the thousands of court decisions issued every year.
Today, even as the Copyright Office carries out its multiple responsibilities under 21st century copyright law, it is simultaneously working hard to update its IT systems to be fully fit-for-purpose in our contemporary, digital-first era.
150 years from now, who knows what the developments in media, data, and copyright will be? But the Copyright Office will certainly be a part of that scene, bringing order to the business of copyright and providing leadership and guidance to copyright holders and users everywhere.