About this Collection
The documents in this collection are the result of the first federal copyright laws in 1790 and 1831 (as amended) and contain the early copyright records and material held by the federal district courts and numerous government offices in Washington, DC. This practice ended with the copyright act of 1870 which consolidated in the Library of Congress all copyright registration and deposit activity, and ordered the transfer of all extant records for the pre-1870 period to the Library of Congress. From 1790 through 1870, copyright registration was accomplished by completion of a registration form at the local federal district court, payment of the fee, and deposit of a printed title page with the clerk of that court. On publication compliance with the notice rules (now done with the © symbol, but much more complicated at the time) and deposit of two copies in Washington, DC was required.
The records produced by the operation of the United States copyright law between 1790 and 1870 constitutes one of the basic sources of information about the United States during its early years. Sheet music, prints, dramatic compositions, photographs, and books covering all topics of human endeavor are represented. The collection includes histories, dramatic plays, religious instruction, elementary education books such as primers, how-to books, music scores, works on true crime, illustrated works of botany, zoology and invention and many fictional works often featuring the ever popular theme of romance. Needless to say, many of the topics are uniquely American portraying new discoveries, inventions and viewpoints. In short, this collection is a veritable time capsule, chronicling an industrious new nation and its intellectual pursuits.
Some of the titles will be readily recognized as founding publications which helped to establish American thought and sensibilities. However, many of the items in the collection were never published or have been lost to history due to their obscurity. Further, because copyright registration preceded publication, many registrations do not correspond to a published work, and these “ghost books” offer a fascinating glimpse of a “what if” in American cultural history. This digital representation allows for these items to be discovered anew. There are endlessly interesting items to be intrigued by and charmed by and many new connections and discoveries to be made.
In total, the Early Copyright Materials Collection consists of over 800 ledgers and assorted volumes of copyright related works. This release offers over 48,000 images individual title pages which were submitted along with copyright registrations and over 200 ledgers. The title pages are organized chronologically in fifty digital groupings and the bound ledgers are organized by state. Full text search capability performed on the title pages allows researchers to mine the collection in specific areas of interest. Future digital releases will present the full collection of over 800 volumes of copyright registrations and related materials in its entirety.
While most copyright records of this time period were sent to the Library, not all extant records were received. Luckily, continued scholarship has resulted in a listing of found items. Zvi Rosen of the George Washington University School of Law has compiled a wonderful resource of found Pre-1870 Copyright Records External to the Library of Congress. This listing, along with future Library of Congress digital installments will complete the full record of early copyright materials in the United States.