March 3

The Library of Congress Reading Room in the Jefferson Building

The Library of the Congress was assured of continuous growth by an enactment of Congress on March 3, 1865 which required that one copy of each work copyrighted in the United States was to be deposited in the library within one month of the date of publication. The same act extended protection to photographs and negatives. A few years later the Act of 1870 included works of art and further stipulated that the Librarian of Congress be appointed Copyright Officer, in which office he was to receive a printed title page of every single book prior to its publication, and two copies of the complete book within ten days of publication. By 1964 the Copyright Office employed 254 people, who handled as many as 279,000 copyright registrations in a year. The Library of Congress had grown to be a repository which contained almost forty-four million items.

While American authors were protected by law and were quite well satisfied with the provisions of the Copyright Act, the situation was a great deal different for European writers, particularly those who wrote in English. These people suffered the widespread pirating of their works in this country during most of the 19th century. Continuous denunciation of American practices in the reprinting of literature came from outraged English authors and the literate segment of the population in the United States who argued for the freedom of ideas on an international scale. But Congress could not be persuaded to pass necessary legislation to extend the copyright privilege.

During the early years of the American nation there was a continuing dependence upon European sources for books. American printers were eager to reprint everything which came their way, especially if there was any possibility of a profit. When the publishing industry was making a tentative start, it, too, began to show no reluctance to place an imprint on the product of any European writer who was popular in America. One group of Philadelphia publishers when asked to present their case, claimed that “Thought, when given to the world, is as light, free for all.”

The publishers were in great measure aided by the attitude of the printing crafts, the printers, the papermakers, typefounders, stereotypers, bookbinders, etc., all of whom felt that American copyright of the work of foreigners would flood the American market with books printed overseas. Such an attitude delayed until 1891 the enactment of an international copyright law. The Chance Act of that year provided that a foreign book had to be printed in the United States in order to be protected by the copyright. In 1955 American membership in the Universal Copyright Convention was finally ratified, but an amendment provided that only fifteen hundred copies of an original work of an American citizen could be imported without loss of copyright.

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