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From the Serial Set: “Memorials” and an International Copyright Law?

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The following is a guest post by Bailey DeSimone, a library technician (metadata) in the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress.

Memorials,” or requests “that the Congress take some action, or refrain from taking certain action,” are housed throughout the United States Congressional Serial Set. These documents provide insight into the communication between citizens – also by means of state legislatures and municipal governments – and Congress. Memorials provide insight into the legislative process. One such case is that of international copyright law.

The first century of American sovereignty prompted the question of copyright protection for American works abroad. The motion for establishing an international copyright law was first brought before the House in the 1st session of the 25th Congress, to which citizens of Philadelphia submitted their own memorial in opposition (1838). A primary objection to the passage of an international copyright law (at the time meaning the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, and France) was the concern for the job security and market prices of the book industry. By globalizing the book trade under international copyright regulations, the Philadelphians worried that the labor market for the trade would also go overseas. The memorial also drew attention to “the number of female operatives alone, connected with these employments, who would be thrown idle by the passage of the bill.” (H. Doc. No. 117, at 1-2 (1838), Serial Set Vol. No. 325.)

Memorial of Citizens of the United States for an international copyright law. H. Doc. No. 10, at 1 (1843), reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 439.

Just as there were dissenters, there were advocates for such a law. In an 1843 memorial by “Citizens of the United States,” a group of booksellers and printers affirmed their interest in the “greatest possible diffusion of knowledge” when advancing the influence of American literary works abroad. (H. Doc. No. 10, at 1-2 (1843), Serial Set Vol. No. 439.)

American historical figures John Jay, Founding Father and first Chief Justice, and William Cullen Bryant, journalist and editor of the New York Evening Post, collaborated to advocate for international copyright law in 1848.

John Jay, 1745-1829 [No date recorded on caption card]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Included in their memorial were the following arguments:

“No constitutional objection to the extension of copyright to foreigners existed to influence the committee in their restriction of that right to American writers, for the constitution authorizes Congress ‘to promote the progress of science and useful arts,’ which have been well said to belong to no party or country, but to mankind generally.” (H. Misc. Doc. No. 76, at 1-13 (1848), Serial Set Vol. No. 523.)

Elliott, Charles Loring, Artist, Copyright Claimant Detroit Publishing Co, and Publisher Detroit Publishing Co. William Cullen Bryant, head-and-shoulders portrait. [Between 1900 and 1912]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
“A very large part of the transactions of the book trade in both countries is in books for children’s reading, and for their use in school education; and in both of these departments…American works…are fast driving the English out of their market.” (H. Misc. Doc. No. 76, at 1-13 (1848), Serial Set Vol. No. 523.)

Jay and Bryant were not the only notable advocates for international copyright protections – American authors Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) openly demonstrated their support in 1886.

In 1891, the Chace Act was passed, amending existing copyright provisions in the revised statutes (the predecessor to the U.S. Code) to extend protections to foreign authors in the United States: “[A]lterations, revisions, and additions made to books by foreign authors, heretofore published…shall be held and deemed capable of being copyrighted.” (26 Stat. 1106).

Other viewpoints in the copyright debate were brought to Congress throughout the rest of the 19th century and beyond. In 1894, the Committee on Patents (later incorporated into today’s Committee on the Judiciary) submitted a bill (H. R. 6835) to amend the existing copyright law to include “protection of authors of dramatic and operatic works.” (H. Rpt. 1191, at 1 (1894) Serial Set Vol. No. 3272.) This was closely followed by H. R. 7015 in 1898, an amendment to extend protections to music publishers. (H. Rpt. No. 1289, at 1 (1898) Serial Set Vol. No. 3721.)

The many perspectives surrounding this particular copyright debate, as preserved in the Serial Set, demonstrate the important role that copyright law has played throughout our nation’s history.

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