How to look for records of... Intellectual property: copyright records 1842-1924 (and 1887-1955)

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

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How many are online?

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We can either copy our records onto paper or deliver them to you digitally

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1.Why use this guide?

This guide will help you to find UK copyright records held at The National Archives. Among these records are one of the great British photography collections of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, with well over 100,000 individual images. There is also a huge and wonderful collection of British branding and advertising images from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The primary sets of copyright records held here are those originally held by:

  • The Stationers’ Company 1842-1924 (but mostly up to 1912)
  • The Stationery Office 1887-1955 (government publications only)
This photograph of twelve boys leaning over a wall, seen from behind, entitled 'Stern Reality' by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, is among the tens of thousands of photographs registered for copyright and now held at The National Archives. The photograph was registered in 1892 (catalogue reference COPY 1/408/127.

This photograph is among the tens of thousands of photographs registered for copyright and now held at The National Archives. The photograph was registered in 1892 (catalogue reference COPY 1/408/127).

These records include:

  • details of literary and commercial books registered for copyright (1842-1912), including, in some cases, a copy of the title page of the book and the date of its first publication
  • details of photographs, advertisement artwork, paintings and drawings registered for copyright (1862-1912), including, in many cases, reproductions or versions of the image
  • details of dramatic and musical works registered for copyright

The records do not include:

An image of sausages flying over mountains. This image was registered for copyright in 1911 and is held in our COPY 1 collection (catalogue reference COPY 1/302).

This image was registered for copyright in 1911 and is among the many commercial artworks held in our collection (catalogue reference COPY 1/302).

To view records referred to in this guide you will either need to visit The National Archives or order digital or paper copies to be sent to you (£). They are not available to view online, though a selection can be previewed in our Image Library.

2.What are these records?

Our copyright records come from two very distinct branches of government and make up two very different collections – it’s the records of the Stationers’ Company where you will find the photographs and prints.

2.1 Copyright records of the Stationers’ Company 1842-1924 (but mostly up to 1912)

Between 1554 and 1924 individuals and businesses could apply to secure copyright by submitting an application for registration to the Stationers’ Company.

The copyright records held at The National Archives are those that were registered under the terms of a succession of copyright acts which began in 1842, including the following:

  • The Copyright Act 1842

The key piece of legislation for records held here. The Act fixed the term of copyright at either 42 years or the life of the author plus seven years, whichever proved longer. The Act decreed that a copyright registry would be kept at Stationers’ Hall, the home of the Stationers’ Company.

  • The International Copyright Acts of 1844, 1852, 1875 and 1886

Registration of foreign authors’ works began at Stationers’ Hall in 1846, in accordance with the 1844 Act.

  • The Fine Arts Copyright Act 1862

The Imperial Copyright Act of 1911 repealed the 1842 Act. The 1911 Act gave protection to all copyrighted material without the need for registration. The statutory registers at Stationers’ Hall therefore closed on 30 June 1912, except for those which recorded works first published in the self-governing dominions (for example, Canada and Australia). These continued to be registered for each dominion until it adopted the Act and such registrations continued until 31 December 1923, when our copyright records of the Stationers’ Company come to a close.

After the final expiration of statutory registration in 1924, the Stationers’ Company set up a new, voluntary register which is still maintained (see section 7.1).

Throughout the period of copyright registration the procedure was often disregarded, partly because of the fees for registration but more importantly to avoid the obligation to provide complimentary copies for copyright libraries.

2.2 Copyright records of the Stationery Office 1887-1955

The Stationery Office is responsible for the copyright, printing, publication and sale of government publications.

Most of the Stationery Office records held at The National Archives are those of the working life of the office itself, as opposed to copyright records per se. However, there are some records that make reference to specific works of copyright (see section 6).

3. The record types and their content

The process of registration required the copyright proprietor to fill out an Entry Form with a description of the work and their personal details. This information was then entered into the Copyright Registers. We hold both the forms and registers here.

3.1 Entry forms

Entry forms often include copies of the title pages of books, or copies of the photographs or prints being registered.

The entry forms include the following information:

  • dates of registration or first publication
  • titles of publications or descriptions of the works supplied
  • details of the copyright proprietor and creator of the work
  • name of publisher and place of publication (for published works)
This photograph of three men, one being shaved, accompanied an entry form completed on 15 December 1892 and the image was registered two days later (catalogue reference COPY 1/410/261).

This photograph accompanied an entry form completed on 15 December 1892 and the image was registered two days later (catalogue reference COPY 1/410/261).

All entry forms are held in series COPY 1 (see section 4).

3.2 Copyright registers

Copyright Registers include the same details as those recorded in the entry forms, as listed above.

There are original indexes for the registers. There are separate registers for the various categories of works:

  • ‘Books, Literary’ registers, which covered:
    • published plays and fiction
    • pamphlets
    • research guides of a technical nature
    • printed music
    • prints
    • games
    • advertising matter
  • ‘Books, Commercial’ registers, which covered:
    • labels
    • trade marks
    • catalogues
    • advertising matter
  • ‘Paintings and Drawings’ registers, split into ‘artistic’ and ‘commercial’ works
  • ‘Photographs’ registers
  • ‘Dramatic and Musical’ registers
  • ‘General Series’ registers which covered all the above fine arts entries from 1862 to 1883
  • Foreign entries and registers

The registers are held in series COPY 3 (see section 5).

3.3 Label Books

Label Books 1873-1912 mostly duplicate items in COPY 1 – they contain pasted-up labels, cards, commercial advertisements and the like.

To find an entry you must select a year range and leaf through the original book itself.

4. How to find entry forms (including copies of photographs)

All entry forms are held in series COPY 1. Photographs, prints and other representations of registered works come attached to the entry forms and their existence is usually highlighted in the catalogue description.

You can use our online catalogue to search by keyword and year in COPY 1 for entry forms of the following:

  • Most of the photographs and artworks registered for copyright from 1862-1882
  • All of the photographs registered for copyright from 1883-1912

Your keywords can be of the following types:

  • photograph description (such as the name of the person, place, subject or theme depicted)
  • copyright proprietor (owner) or photographer’s name
This colour photograph of people bathing in the Ganges in Benares was registered in 1907 in the name of Walter Meakin. It's listed in our catalogue as a photograph and as a 'coloured postcard' (catalogue reference COPY 1/514/30).

This photograph of people bathing in the Ganges in Benares was registered in 1907 in the name of Walter Meakin. It’s listed in our catalogue as a photograph and as a ‘coloured postcard’ (catalogue reference COPY 1/514/30).

To find the reference for the photograph shown above in our catalogue you could search in COPY 1 with any of the following: ‘Ganges’, ‘Benares’, ‘Walter Meakin’ or even ‘coloured postcard’, though for the latter you would have a lot of results to pick through.

If you can’t find an entry form using keywords you can try browsing COPY 1 by date and type of entry but as all works other than photographs and artworks are not listed in our catalogue in individual detail, including books, musicals and plays, you will need to know the year and probably the month of registration to have a hope of finding anything.

All registers are held in COPY 3.

The copyright registers in the COPY 3 series are arranged chronologically and are not searchable by keyword in our online catalogue. There are, however, original indexes to some of the registers (listed in the tables below) arranged alphabetically by the name of the copyright proprietor. You can use the paper indexes to find a volume and page number for the entry in the respective register – you will need to visit us to do so.

When a register entry is followed by the words ‘Copy Annexed’, it means that a copy of the work is attached to the original entry form in COPY 1.

5.1 Books registers

Assignments, up to and including 2 July 1883, are included in the registers with the original entries. They are included separately at the end of each volume.

Registers References References for indexes Assignments registers and indexes
Books Literary and Commercial 1842-1883 COPY 3/1-29 COPY 3/81, COPY 3/91 COPY 3/1-29, COPY 3/101-102
Books, Literary 1883-1924 COPY 3/30-62 COPY 3/82-90 COPY 3/97-100, COPY 3/103
Books, Commercial, 1883-1912 COPY 3/63-80 COPY 3/92-96 COPY 3/97-100, COPY 3/103

6.2 Fine arts registers

The registers in this division include both original entries and assignments of all paintings, drawings and photographs registered.

From 1862 to 1883 all the fine arts entries are in a ‘General Series’ of registers.

Registers References References for indexes
Paintings, Drawings & Photographs 1862-1883 in ‘General series’ registers COPY 3/104-118 COPY 3/200-203
Paintings & Drawings 1883-1912 COPY 3/119-163 COPY 3/204-212
Photographs 1883 – 1912 COPY 3/164-199 COPY 3/213-220
Dramatic & Musical 1873-1922 COPY 3/221-224 COPY 3/225-226
Paintings and Drawings: Artistic 1906-1912 COPY 3/149-152
Paintings & Drawings: Commercial 1906-1912 COPY 3/153-163
The details of the copyright registration of this image, showing boats at see against a yellow sky with the words 'Eat Fish' blazoned across the image, and many other commercial artworks, appear in the 'Paintings and Drawings: Commercial" registers. The image itself, registered in 1909, is held in COPY 1 (catalogue reference COPY 1/288).

The details of the copyright registration of this image, and many others commercial artworks, appear in the ‘Paintings and Drawings: Commercial” registers. The image itself, registered in 1909, is held in COPY 1 (catalogue reference COPY 1/288).

5.3 Foreign entries and registers

Between 1847 and 1854 foreign copyright entries were made in the General Series of Registry Books, but these are indexed separately.

After 1883 the Foreign Register is divided into separate divisions such as books, music or prints. Before 1883 assignments for books, music, prints, sculpture and so on are included in the General Series, at the end of each volume.

Registers References References for indexes
Foreign Entries 1846-1912 (inc. in General) COPY 3/4-7 COPY 3/251-256
Foreign Representations Dramatic 1883-1912 COPY 3/221, 223, 224, 250
Foreign Sculpture, Paintings & Drawings 1883-1888 COPY 3/248-249
Foreign Prints 1883-1888 COPY 3/247
Foreign Books 1883-1891 COPY 3/241-242

One of the foreign entries in our copyright records, registered in 1907. The address of the copyright owner of this photograph was in Rangoon in Burma, now known as Myanmar (catalogue reference COPY 1/514/560).

Note: Domestic Registers which continue beyond 1912 do so as Registers for Dominions (principally Canadian) works.

6. How to find Stationery Office records

All Stationery Office records are held in the STAT department.

Most of the Stationery Office records held at The National Archives are those of the working life of the office itself, as opposed to copyright records per se. However, the following records cover copyright issues and specific works of copyright:

  • out-letters from 1888-1955 in STAT 4
  • registers of in-letters from 1888-1921 in STAT 5
  • files of copyright correspondence from 1887-1955 in STAT 14/27255

7. Records and resources held elsewhere

7.1 Records of the Stationers’ Company held at Stationers’ Hall

For copyright records from between 1554 and 1842 and voluntary registrations from 1912 onwards, you should visit The Stationers’ Company archive.

To find individual records from 1710 to 1842 you need to consult the original registers at the archive itself and it’s essential to know the date of publication as no reliable index exists (there are less than perfect indexes up to 1750 and no indexes at all after 1750). For entries up to 1709 you can consult the transcripts in the following publications, though they are available only in specialist and academic libraries:

The Stationers’ Company holds records of voluntary registration from 1912 onwards, supplemented by deposited copies of registered works. Voluntary registration expires after seven years, at which point Stationers’ Hall disposes of the registered work. Only if it is re-registered (on payment of a further fee) is it retained for a further seven years, though the registers are kept regardless.

7.2 Copyright libraries

The following copyright libraries hold complimentary copies of publications:

8. Further reading

The following publications are available at The National Archives’ library in Kew.

Sidney Hodgson, The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers: Archives and Portraits (Stationers’ Hall, 1953)

Hugh Barty-King, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office: the story of the first 200 years, 1786-1986 (H.M.S.O., 1986)

Robin Myers, The Stationers’ Company Archive: An Account of the Records 1554-1984 (St Paul’s Bibliographies, 1990)

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 45