“Entered according to the act of Congress” sounds like a grand entry, indeed, and it’s a phrase we are often asked about because it appears near the bottom of many pictures. But what does it mean?
Starting in 1802, that phrase was required by U.S. Copyright law to be on works for which a rights holder wanted copyright protection. It appears on many historical prints, product labels, and other pictorial items in our collections–and on similar items that people find among their family keepsakes and while hunting antiques.
The phrase simply means that the rights holder was claiming copyright to the work so that others could not make or distribute unauthorized copies. At the time, establishing their copyright involved submitting a registration giving basic information (e.g., the title of the work and contact information for the rights holder), paying a fee, and, generally, sending in two copies of the work being copyrighted.
How did the Library of Congress get involved? Up until 1870, copyright registration was administered by the Clerks of the U.S. District Courts, and works were required to carry the printed legend, “Entered according to the act of Congress, in the year __, by __, in the clerk’s office of the district court of ___ .”
But starting in 1870, the copyright registration and deposit system became centralized in the Library of Congress, and the copyright phrase became: “Entered according to act of Congress, in the year __, by __, in the office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington.” (Starting in June of 1874, rights holders could shorten the phrase to the word “Copyright” and the year the copyright was entered, and the stipulations have continued to change in subsequent revisions to copyright law.)
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a vast array of items, including books, music, and pictures of all types arrived at the Library of Congress as copyright deposits. Staff selected items from those copyright deposits to become part of the Library of Congress collections. Although the Prints and Photographs Division doesn’t hold every work that was copyrighted, a wonderful variety of historical prints used for advertising, classroom instruction, and home decoration, as well as various types of photographs and other pictorial items have become available to researchers thanks to copyright deposit.
People who own pictures bearing the copyright notice sometimes write to us, hoping we can give them a sense of the rarity or value of their piece. Because of the number of questions we get asked about historical prints, we have an entire reference aid devoted to them that gives background information, a bibliography of sources to learn more about historical prints and publishers, and referrals for obtaining evaluations and appraisals. Generally, however, we don’t have much information about a specific print or photograph beyond what it says on the piece.
Information about the rarity of a particular art work is hard to come by. The copyright record does not include the number of copies the rights holder made of a particular print or photograph, nor do we have a ready way of determining how many copies were distributed and how many survive. Especially with lithographic prints produced in the nineteenth century, commercial publishers often printed them in large quantities. And, judging from the number of people who report owning them, many are still in existence.
Value often boils down to how much someone is willing to pay for an item–definitely subject to the vagaries of fashion, personal taste, and what else is on the market at the same time. Library of Congress staff cannot offer appraisals of the authenticity or value of a work. We can point people to sources for auction information to get a sense of the market, and we furnish information on finding professional appraisers.
As Martha Kennedy, Curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Arts, points out, the greatest value historical prints have to offer may be in the information and pleasure we derive from them: “Prints bearing the copyright legend may not, strictly speaking, be rare nor have monetary value high enough to offset the cost of appraisal, but they are valuable to students of history because they can yield interesting and significant insights into the aesthetic taste and social and cultural aspects of life during the times in which they were produced.”
- View a sampling of the pictures in Prints & Photographs Division holdings that bear the “entered according to act of Congress” phrase.
- Learn about historical prints through our reference aid, “Historical Prints: Evaluation, Authenticity, Copyright, Dealers, and Bibliography,” which includes resources for further research and sources of appraisal.
- Explore publications offered by the U.S. Copyright Office:
- Copyright Law Revision Study 7, “Copyright Notice” discusses the history of the phrase “entered according to act of Congress” (pdf file; see especially p. 6-7).
- Copyright Lore, Copyright system centralized in the Library of Congress 1870 (pdf file) discusses the centralization of registration and deposit in the Library of Congress.
- Additional historical documents outline the varying deposit requirements over time and other changes to the law.
- A picture may have come to us through copyright deposit, but that doesn’t mean the copyright is still in effect. You can learn about the duration of copyright and other tips for assessing the rights to pictures in our online reference aid, “Copyright and Other Restrictions That Apply to Publication/Distribution of Images: Assessing the Risk of Using a P&P Image.”