The most current federal copyright statute includes eight categories of copyrightable works for both published and unpublished materials. But these eight categories weren’t added all at once, rather these broad classifications were added gradually over time as new technologies gave rise to new works.

When the first federal copyright statute was enacted in the United States, the Act only extended protection to “maps, charts, and books”, what we now generally categorize as literary works. The first addition came in 1802 when the 1790 Act was amended to include “engraving, and etching historical and other prints”, and also included the first instance of formalities that required creators to include a prescribed copyright notice on every work distributed to the public.

David L. Richardson and I.T. Norton registered the first musical work, “Maid of My Love” in 1831 after a revision of the general copyright law. Under current copyright law, Section 102(a)(2) provides protection in “musical works, including any accompanying words” that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Dramatic works received protection in 1856 which included for the first time, the right of public performance.

In 1865, just a few weeks before his death, Lincoln signed a new law that granted copyright protection to photographs and photographic negatives. Many speculate that the work of famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady had a strong influence on the bill.

Twenty six years later, U.S. copyright law was amended again when President Benjamin Harrison signed the International Copyright Act of 1891 which was the first US copyright law authorizing the establishment of copyright relations with foreign countries. It was the first U.S. congressional act that offered US copyright protection to citizens of other countries. The first foreign work registered was the play Saints and Sinners by British author Henry Arthur Jones.

Public performance rights for musical compositions were formally established in 1897. In 1903, the Supreme Court extended protection to commercial art after Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co. sought protection for circus advertisements.

Before motion pictures were formally protected in 1912, copyright owners were required to register the works as a series of still photographs. “Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze” from 1894 is the oldest surviving motion picture deposited as still photos. The first motion picture registered under this new category was “Black Sheep’s Wool” from the Republic Film Company.

The last two additions to the categories of copyrightable works came in in the late 20th century. In 1980 the law was amended to affirm the copyrightability of computer programs, which falls under the broad category of literary works. Ten years later, architecture works were added in 1990, though they unofficially been protected since the 1909 Copyright Act as “[d]rawings or plastic works of a scientific or technical nature”, which were commonly interpreted as blueprints. In 1976, “an architect’s plans and drawings” were included as pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, but the protection was limited by the concept of useful articles. When the U.S. joined the Berne Convention in 1989, architectural works were formally added a requirement of the agreement.

Are you ready to test what you’ve learned above? Check out the interactive tool to put the categories of copyrightable works in the order they were added to law.

Do you want to learn more about copyright history in the United States? Visit the interactive Copyright Timeline available through the US Copyright Office.


By Allison DeVito, Copyright Services Specialist at Copyright Services, The Ohio State University Libraries.