4 Replies Latest reply on Apr 10, 2019 4:14 PM by Darren Cole

    first photographs to be copyrighted


      I have written 53 books on coins, taken roughly 30,000 photographs on coins


      I am seeking information on the first photograph to be registered for copyright


      I am researching and writing a book on "Coin Photography, Artistic Judgment, and Copyright Protection", part of which covers photography and also history of copyright acts, law, and caselaw


      First photographs in the US were roughly 1838.  Two primary types of photographs during the early 19th century, daguerreotype process which created a positive image, calotype which created a negative


      Photographs and negatives were granted copyright protection in 1865.  At this time, registration was done at he district courts.  In 1870, registration was changed to Library of Congress.  Most of the records from the district courts were moved to the national archives closest to them.  These copyright registrations are part of Group 21.  First copyright case regarding photographs was Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, on March 17, 1884


      Time period would start before 1865, and go to possibly 1870, just seeking information regarding the first photograph registered, whom registered, date, any description, such as type of photograph and such.  Even though photographs were not officially protected in 1865, individuals such as Matthew Brady were registering their photos before 1865.  The district court records are in the archives closest to them


      greatly appreciate your help



      Kevin Flynn

        • Re: first photographs to be copyrighted
          Jason Atkinson Ranger

          Dear Mr. Flynn,


          Thank you for posting your request on History Hub!

          We searched online and could not find a source that provides an immediate answer to your question.  We did find an article in The Photographic Times: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Interests of Artistic and Scientific Photography, Volume 33. Photographic Times Publishing Assn., 1901 that provides some information about the first photographed registered for copyright by the Library of Congress.  However, it states that they could not discover the title and date of the first photograph ever copyrighted in the United States, because it is “hidden” in the records of numerous courts.  It is possible that since 1901, someone else has undertaken the task of researching court records to identify the first copyright of a photograph, in which case the research results may have been published in an academic journal.

          If you desire to research the court records yourself, you should know that Records of District Courts of the United States are found in Record Group 21 (RG 21).  We conducted an Advanced Search of our National Archives Catalog for RG 21 series relating to copyright and found numerous record series, file units and item. It appears that the records most likely to contain the type of information that you are searching for go by a variety of titles depending on the originating court, such a “Copyrighted Materials,” “Record of Copyright,” “Copyright Record Books,” “Copyright Account Books,” “Copyright Registers,” “Copyright Dockets,” etc.  Unfortunately, there is no single index or register that lists all the copyright registrations for the entire nation during the time period you are interested in. Instead you would need to research each series individually. 

          As you state in your post, the majority of these records in the National Archives and Record Administration’s regional facilities.  For a list of our research facilities with links to additional information about each one, you can also visit this page. You can also contact each of the regions directly if you wish to make further inquiries about researching their holdings.

          An additional option would be contacting the U.S. Copyright Office and asking if they have any reference material that might be pertinent to your research.

          We hope this information is helpful. Best of luck with your research!

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