It started with a sneeze, or so we thought.
Since the 1950s, film historians counted “The Sneeze” from 1894 as the earliest surviving film copyrighted in the United States. At this time, the film began being shown as a motion picture after being copied back to film from a photograph.
Claudy Op den Kamp, a fellow at the John W. Kluge Center, aimed to re-discover the identities of the first and third films copyrighted in the United States through her research at the Library of Congress. Both those titles were known only by the name “Edison Kinetoscopic Records,” and historians hypothesized that several film titles could have been among the first registered. Not only did Op den Kamp conclusively identify the film, she also discovered letters alluding to the origins of motion picture copyright itself.
However, let’s not spoil the ending.
Op den Kamp arrived at the Library of Congress as a Kluge Fellow in February of 2022 from Bournemouth University, where she is a Principal Academic in Film. Her goal: learn more about Ainsworth Rand Spofford’s work on the US Copyright system to identify the development of motion picture copyright in the early years of the 20th century. Spofford was the sixth Librarian of Congress and the father of US Copyright. Prior to the establishment of motion picture-specific copyright practices in 1912, motion picture creators used copyright practices established for other forms of media, such as those for photographs, to claim ownership over their films. At this time, creators submitted films in nearly thirty different ways to the Copyright Office. Op den Kamp was looking for two things: the actual deposits (the missing first and third registrations of American film) and the conversation about them, chronicling how creators negotiated ownership of art and intellectual property made with this new technology.
Op den Kamp began reaching out to reading rooms to determine how she would find this information. She searched specifically for the copyright request from W.K.L. Dickson, the head photographer at the Edison Laboratory. This search was an incredibly time-consuming endeavor for both researcher and Library staff.
Meanwhile, Op den Kamp began learning everything she could about early copyright processes and the discussion around how to classify film, gaining an understanding of the document and copyright archiving practices of the Library. Claudy turned to the “shadow libraries” of Library employees past and present who held institutional knowledge of copyright practices. She learned from scholars who had previously searched for the film title, but also gained insights into Spofford’s process of working with those seeking copyrights for their materials. She studied the history of copyright-related practices through blog posts from the Copyright Office. She found out that the first copyrighted film was not submitted as a picture, but rather as a book. This led Op den Kamp to the Rare Books reading room.
After learning about some unprocessed materials while searching for a particular copyright accession number, Op den Kamp worked with the Rare Books and Special Collections Division to identify ten pallets (about 928,000 pieces of paper) of early copyright correspondence that could contain information relevant to her research. From there, Claudy worked with Library staff to narrow down the needed pallets to five most likely to contain holdings relevant to her search, specifically copyright materials from 1893 to 1897. Through card catalogs of accession numbers, the helpful notes of a retired Library employee, and a pallet record from Rare Books, Op den Kamp identified the pallet likely to contain her sought deposit or something alluding to it.
In the final week of her fellowship at the Library, in true mystery movie form, Op den Kamp traveled to the Library’s Culpeper campus, where the Library’s Motion Pictures Department is located, to search the fifty boxes of Spofford’s archival materials on her chosen pallet. There, Library staff removed the wrapping off the pallet and Op den Kamp began identifying boxes.
Within the first box, she found it: a letter between W.K.L. Dickson, representing the Edison Laboratory, and Ainsworth Rand Spofford, representing the Library. As she opened the letter dated Nov. 14, 1893, a series of images contained on one sheet fell from the letter. She knew what she had found immediately, and being in the Motion Pictures Department, other staff joined her in celebrating something thought lost. This fragment featured the “records” that Dickson wanted copyrighted. Through this letter and associated fragment, Op den Kamp determined that the first copyrighted film in the United States was a previously-known clip, “The Blacksmith Shop,” featuring three men acting as blacksmiths in a performance for the camera. By deduction (and her earlier research), Op den Kamp could conclude that the also-missing third deposit must be a clip of an acrobat, “Amateur Gymnast no. 2.”
The identification of the infamous missing copyright deposit was only the tip of the iceberg. The letter also contained the conversation between W.K.L. Dickson and Ainsworth Rand Spofford about how to copyright early film. Dickson, who wanted to hold ownership over the films by the cheapest method possible, wrote to Spofford inquiring about the limits of his copyright ownership. He had included the images of the film to establish his copyright over “The Blacksmith Shop” but Dickson also wanted to know if he owned all images produced by the camera – the rights to the medium itself. Would the art be separated from the tools used to create it?
The letter’s importance cannot be overstated; however, without her other research completed at the Kluge Center, Op den Kamp may not have been prepared for her ultimate search and findings. According to Op den Kamp,
“In devising my research project, I knew that the Library of Congress was the only institution where I could execute it – the copyright correspondence to and from Ainsworth Rand Spofford that is at the heart of my project, is unique in the world – so the Kluge Center was the project’s ideal home.
Initially, I experienced the Center as a wonderful physical space, ideally located in the Library’s Jefferson Building, made up of personal cubicles, where I was given the privilege of time, silence, and access to the greatest collection of sources imaginable.
But then very organically, through interacting with the people – fellow researchers who were willing to share ideas in a warm and collaborative atmosphere, and staff members who were instrumental in negotiating access to some of the more challenging sources – the Kluge Center became a veritable intellectual workshop, an experience I will cherish for a long time to come.”
Without the accumulation of knowledge around early copyright registration practices over the course of her time at the Kluge Center, Op den Kamp may not have known how to look for the letter at all. Having the time to learn more about the US Copyright Office in its earliest iterations and understand its practices, like the cost of copyrighting a photograph, Op den Kamp was prepared to search through unprocessed copyright materials found in the Library. In the words of Op den Kamp, “we archive the products, not the purpose.” In this case, by painstakingly trying to re-create that original purpose, Op den Kamp understood the negotiation occurring between Dickson and Spofford was of great importance.
Op den Kamp acknowledges how this negotiation reflects present, timeless issues of policy. Legislators are often faced with the difficult task of regulating new, relatively misunderstood technologies. The story of Spofford and Dickson’s efforts to negotiate the role of intellectual property in the birth of film reflects current debates about internet regulation and ownership of AI art. As Dickson wondered whether ownership of the camera meant ownership of the movies made with it, we are now faced with questions of whether creating an AI means one owns the art it creates.
Although for years, Fred Ott (the man featured in “The Sneeze”) claimed he was the first movie star, it appears there were three unidentified earlier movie stars (one of whom was Fred’s older brother John!). Three men working and sharing a drink, toasting to work well done and waiting to be found.
In her film, “The Shadow Line,” Op den Kamp presents her re-discovery and shares how it relates to issues of intellectual property as a whole, and the way histories are re-interpreted, more generally.
On April 19, at 4pm in the Whittall Pavillion in the Thomas Jefferson Building, Op den Kamp returned to the Library of Congress for an interview with the Kluge Center’s Andrew Breiner on her discovery, how she accomplished it, and the importance of Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford and the surviving copyright records in retelling the beginnings of cinema. You can watch this interview virtually here.