The early days of motion pictures were a time of experimentation and discovery, not only for pioneers who invented new formats and methods, but also for copyright law and the U.S. Copyright Office, keeping pace with innovative, creative endeavors. A recent discovery has shed light on one of the key facts missing from our understanding of that early history, namely the identity of the first U.S. motion picture registered for copyright.
Thomas Edison was on the forefront of exploring new visual formats. In the late 1800s, he and his engineer William K.L. Dickson invented ingenious machines and methods in their New Jersey laboratory.
Together, they developed the kinetoscope, a device that allowed one person at a time to view a strip of sequential photographs, creating the illusion of motion. This device might seem primitive to twenty-first century audiences and was vastly different from the big-screen experience of today’s moviegoers.
Edison and Dickson furthered the creation of a new medium of expression—a motion picture. This new medium was not covered by copyright law at the time, but protection had been extended to photographs since 1865. Eager to protect this new form of creativity, in October 1893 Dickson submitted “Edison Kinetoscopic Records,” likely as a series of photographs that represented frames from a motion picture.
At that time, applications were only in letter form and were accompanied by a copy of the material, known as a deposit, which staff examined to assess the copyright claim. The practice then, and still today, was for the Copyright Office to keep deposits on file to maintain an authoritative record.
Unfortunately, somewhere in the mists of time, likely in the 1940s, the deposit for “Edison Kinetoscopic Records” went missing. Since that title was not descriptive of the content, the identity of that first film remained unknown. Until now.
This summer, Kluge Fellow Claudy Op den Kamp discovered a letter dated November 14, 1893, from Dickson to Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who was also acting as Register of Copyrights. Dickson asked about the status of the copyright application he submitted the previous month.
To Op den Kamp’s great surprise, the letter included eighteen small images printed in two strips on a single sheet. The photographs depicted three men standing around an anvil enacting a scene from a blacksmith shop.
“I froze,” says Op den Kamp, a film scholar from Bournemouth University. “I couldn’t grasp what I was holding.” As part of her fellowship, Op den Kamp had spent several months hunting for any proof she could find of a conversation between Spofford and Dickson, and indeed Dickson’s registration.
This was the piece of evidence to definitively identify that first copyright motion picture registration as “The Blacksmith Shop,” also known as “The Blacksmith Scene” or “The Blacksmithing Scene.” The scene was already known by historians, as it was the first publicly shown film using the kinetoscope. The Library of Congress added the film to the National Film Registry in 1995 as being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. A copy of the thirty-second film has been preserved by The Museum of Modern Art.
In his letter, Dickson also asked if his “copyright of Kinetoscopic subjects will embrace all kinds of moving objects” and whether the copyright registration for his first submission could apply to future works, since he had solely “developed this whole scheme from the commencement.”
Dickson’s “Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze,” often called “Fred Ott’s Sneeze,” was registered for copyright on January 9, 1894, and has received much acclaim for its place in history and was often mistaken for the first-registered motion picture. That work was actually the second motion picture registered, but the deposit survived, and the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division used groundbreaking techniques to convert the paper prints back into film, and more recently into a digital format.
It wasn’t until August 24, 1912, that motion pictures, as a separate format, were eligible for copyright registration. A May 1912 House of Representatives report noted, “The production of . . . motion pictures . . . has become a business of vast proportions. The money therein invested is so great and the property rights so valuable that the committee is of the opinion that the copyright law ought to be so amended as to give to them distinct and definite recognition and protection.”
During the first year the Copyright Office started accepting motion picture applications, it registered 892 movies. One of the earliest was The Charge of the Light Brigade, registered by none other than Thomas Edison on September 26, 1912.
Today, the Copyright Office registers nearly 41,000 motion picture and audiovisual works annually from individual creators and large movie studios alike. This form of creative output is a vital part of the global and U.S. economy. The American film and television industry supports 2.2 million jobs, pays out $192 billion in total wages and comprises more than 110,000 businesses.1
To register your film or to find information about registering motion pictures visit copyright.gov.
1Driving Economic Growth, Motion Picture Association, November 2021.