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Image of a digital navigation device sitting on top of a paper map with a banner identifying the post as part of the Find Yourself in Copyright blog series

Find Your Way in Copyright

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The following is a guest post by Rachelle Hellams, attorney-advisor in the Office of Public Information and Education at the U.S. Copyright Office. 

“Recalculating . . . Recalculating . . . In five feet turn left . . . Recalculating . . . Make a U-turn in ten feet . . . ”

Listening to a computerized voice direct us to our next destination is such a common occurrence now that many of us rarely stop to think about how we arrived at this time in technology. Although I do wonder on occasion why the voice sounds increasingly frustrated after each recalculating statement. Throughout my life, my interactions with maps evolved from relying on the expertise of people standing in front of me to casually selecting an app on my phone. I distinctly remember as a child waiting in line with my mom at a local travel agency to have a “route map” created for the annual summer road trip. If we wanted to know what interstate had lane closures or heavy construction and what alternative routes were available three states away, the local travel agency was the only game in town.

Stock image of someone driving a car using the map on their phone for navigation.
Today, many of us use the maps on our phones to get to our next destination.

As I grew, map-related technology seemed to grow as well. As a teenager, I could print out directions for a road trip from the internet with the most up-to-date information, to later having a GPS standalone system as a college student driving back and forth down the interstate of my home state for seven to eight hours for holiday visits. Today, I and many others clip our phone into a holder on a car’s dashboard, select an app to use, and go on our journey, whether it’s to a local baseball game or across the country. All with (hopefully) the latest traffic information already available and processed through the app in real time.

Although the passage of time seems more condensed in my relatively short life so far, the inclusion of stagecoach schedules in maps created in the early 1790s by Abraham Bradley Jr. promoted and increased the very idea of the “concept of time beyond (a) seasonal” perspective.[1] An example of a map created by Abraham Bradley Jr. with an intricately detailed stagecoach schedule is on display in the Copyright Office’s new exhibit, Find Yourself in Copyright.

Colored image of a 1790s map created by Abraham Bradley Jr showing the eastern half of the United States
One of Abraham Bradley Jr.’s hand-colored maps created for the U.S. Postal Service.

Not long before Bradley initiated his mapmaking career with what would become the U.S. Postal Service, the first U.S. Copyright Act passed in 1790 protecting maps, charts, and books. Maps (cartographic or visual representations) continue to be protected by U.S. copyright law under the current 1976 Act. If you were to look under the definition section of the 1976 Act, you would see maps and globes defined as a type of “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural work.” The copyrightable content of a map may include an “original selection, coordination, and/or arrangement of cartographic features, such as roads, lakes, rivers, cities, or political or geographic boundaries” as well as creative depictions of “new roads, historical landmarks, or zoning boundaries.”[2]

Various types of copyrightable cartographic authorship created today can be found in “terrestrial maps and atlases, marine charts, celestial maps, as well as three-dimensional works, such as globes and relief models.”[3] A map may represent an actual location, such as the map created by Abraham Bradley Jr. on display. They can also represent a fictional location, such as a map in a book that illustrates an imaginary town. Today, all types of maps still fascinate me, and my ability to read a map has come in handy occasionally. Nonetheless, I eagerly look forward to the future of cartography and how these authors help us on our journeys of exploration and adventure. “. . . Turn left . . . Congratulations! You’ve arrived at your destination.”

Image of a fictional pirate map, showing a dotted line leading to treasure.
Maps protected by copyright may represent actual or fictional locations.

Find Yourself in Copyright explores how U.S. copyright law has evolved and how the millions of copyright claims registered with the Office illustrate the varied nature of original works. Once the Library of Congress’s Madison Building fully opens to the public, you can visit the exhibit on the fourth floor. In the meantime, you can explore the exhibit’s companion website.


[1] Nancy A. Pope, “Bradley Postal Map,” Smithsonian National Postal Museum, accessed March 24, 2022,

[2] Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: U.S. Copyright Office, 2021), 919.1–2.

[3] Compendium, 919.1–2.; See also “Maps are not considered useful articles for purposes of registration, because their only utilitarian function is to convey information.” Copyright Act of 1976, 17 USC § 101 (2020) (definition of “useful article”).

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