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The Statue of Liberty: A Copyright Inspiration

Bartholdi deposited this photo of his model of the Statue of Liberty with the Copyright Office.

As the Fourth of July approaches, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the ideals it enshrines. It has inspired millions around the world as well as one of the most enduring symbols of freedom and democracy: the Statue of Liberty. The statue, officially named Liberty Enlightening the World, is one of the most recognized sculptures ever registered for copyright.

The history of the Statue of Liberty is an interesting one. Often described as a gift from France, it is more accurate to say the statue is a gift from the people of France. French historian and political thinker, Édouard de Laboulaye, first conceived of the idea after the American Civil War to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the United States and the country’s upcoming centennial. The idea inspired French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, and he soon began formulating a design.

To be a symbol of friendship, Bartholdi envisioned the statue as a joint effort; if the Americans built the pedestal, he would build the statue. Shortly after the United States’ centennial, on August 31, 1876, Bartholdi registered the Statue of American Independence with the Copyright Office. He also submitted two images as deposit copies: a photo of a model of the statue and a rendering of how it would appear against the New York skyline on the pedestal. American architect Richard M. Hart took up the design and construction of the pedestal, which he would register with the Copyright Office as well.

Bartholdi’s deposits highlight the evolution of the statue. In the original design, showcased in the rendering, the Statue of Liberty is holding in her left hand a broken chain and shackle, meant to represent freedom newly achieved. The fully realized statue would place the chain and shackle, symbolically broken by Liberty, at her feet. In her hand, now, is a tablet inscribed July IV, MDCCLXXVI (July 4, 1776, in roman numerals), the date of the United States’ independence.

Bartholdi deposited this artistic rendering of the statue against the New York skyline with the Copyright Office.

It would take ten years to raise enough money on both sides of the Atlantic to fund the construction of the statue and the pedestal on which it would sit. During this time, creative works inspired by the intent of the statue flourished, often in an attempt to raise funds. Newspapers, magazines, and advertisements popularized its image. Memorabilia flourished. Famous authors, including Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, contributed literary works as part of a fundraising campaign. Emma Lazarus wrote her iconic sonnet, “The New Colossus,” for an auction benefiting the construction. Ultimately, Joseph Pulitzer would use his newspaper, The New York World, to solicit donations from everyday Americans—more than 160,000 answered the call.

Eventually, the project earned enough funding. In 1886, crews erected the pedestal and statue, and, on October 26, President Grover Cleveland officially dedicated the statue in front of a crowd of thousands.

Since, it has engaged the creativity of millions, inspiring countless works, from literature to music to theater, art, and more. In 1903, Lazarus’s sonnet, so entwined with the broadening ideals of the statue, was affixed to the pedestal. Its most famous passage welcomes and encourages immigrants from around the world, who then contribute their own stories and creations:

This photo, by Carol M. Highsmith, is part of the Library’s Highsmith Archive Collection, providing copyright-free access to more than 2,500 images.

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Yet, the Statue of Liberty is not just a creative work; it is a promise of freedom and inclusion. Copyright reflects that promise by protecting a broad range of creative expressions and giving creators from all backgrounds an incentive to tell their stories and an opportunity to inspire others with their experience.

Later this year, the Copyright Office will unveil a new public exhibit in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress. Find Yourself in Copyright will highlight the history of copyright in the United States and its importance in protecting works for all creators. The centerpiece of the exhibition? Imagery from the original copyright deposits submitted to the Office for the Statue of Liberty, a reminder of the power of copyright-protected works and the inspiration they can provide to all of us.



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