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Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 45
Last updated: 10 March 2008

1. Introduction

Copyright presented no problem until the development of printing; it was the need to sell multiple copies of a single printed work before the final profit was made which raised the question. From 1554 until 1924 copyright was normally secured by registration with the Stationers' Company in London.

2. Copyright and other libraries

Throughout the period during which registration was necessary to establish copyright, there was widespread disregard of the procedure, partly because of the fees payable to the Stationers for registration, but more importantly to evade the obligation to provide complimentary copies for copyright libraries. By 1801 eleven such libraries had been established. After 1836 (6 & 7 William IV c.110) the number was reduced to five: the present British Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the Cambridge University Library, the present National Library of Scotland and Trinity College Dublin. By an Act of 1911 the National Library of Wales was added. The National Archives is not a copyright library.

3. Records at Stationers' Hall

The Stationers' Company has in its possession copyright registers from 1554 to 1842. The entries up to 1709 have been published in A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London 1554-1660 ed. E Arber (1875-94) and A Transcript of the Registers of the Worshipful Company of Stationers from 1640 to 1708 (1709) ed. Briscoe Eyre (1913-14); in addition there are indexes, which are not completely satisfactory, up to 1700, and one in progress to 1750. For all entries from 1710 to 1842 the original registers need to be consulted, but the absence of an index from 1700 makes knowledge of the date of publication essential.

4. Records at The National Archives

Copyright records held at The National Archives cover the years 1842 to 1924. During this period the law of copyright, though extremely complex in detail, rested substantially on an Act of 1842. This fixed the term of years during which copyright could be enjoyed as 42 years after publication or the life of the author plus 7 years, whichever should prove the longer.

Registration at Stationers' Hall (a condition of protection in all copyright legislation since 1709), was re-enacted. Entry was to be made

"in the Registry Book of the Stationers' Company of the Title of such Book, the Time of the first Publication thereof, the Name and Place of Abode of the Publisher thereof, and the Name and Place of Abode of the Proprietor of the Copyright of the said Book...and it shall be lawful for every such registered Proprietor to assign his Interest... by making entry in the said book of Registry of such Assignment, and of the Name and Place of Abode of the Assignee thereof... such Assignment... shall be of the same Force and Effect as if such Assignment had been made by Deed"

The wording of the Act suggests only a limited application i.e. 'to literary matter of lasting benefit to the world'. In practice copyright was given a much wider application, and came to include practically any original literary work. Copyright in non-literary works during this period rested on other Acts of similar import.

International copyright was the subject of a series of treaties and Acts in the nineteenth century. Protection was provided for foreigners on the same basis as for the nationals of the country concerned. In Britain registration at Stationers' Hall of works by foreign authors began in 1846 pursuant to an Act of 1844.

The Imperial Copyright Act of 1911 gave benefit of protection to all material entitled to copyright without the formality of registration, and the statutory registers at Stationers' Hall ended on 30 June 1912, except for works first published in the self-governing Dominions. These continued to be registered for each Dominion until it adopted the Act, and such registrations extend to 31 December 1923. The 1911 Act, which repealed the Act of 1842, set the term of normal copyright at the life of the author plus 50 years. Copyright protection was statutorily extended to gramophone recordings, film adaptations and conversions of novels or similar material into dramatic works and vice versa.

Since the 1911 Act and the subsequent Act of 1956, the Stationers' Company has continued to maintain a voluntary register supplemented by deposited copies of registered works. Voluntary registration expires after 7 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 7 years. The registers are kept, however. The Company has transferred to The National Archives the records produced by statutory registration under the 1842 Act. They consist of Copyright Registers and the indexes to them (COPY 3: 1842-1924); Entry Forms (COPY 1: 1837-1912), often with copies of the works such as photographs, prints, title pages, etc.; and Label Books (COPY 2: 1873-1912) which contain pasted-up labels, cards, commercial advertisements, etc., mostly duplicating items in COPY 1.

5. Stationery Office records

The Stationery Office is responsible for copyright in government publications as well as for their printing, publication and sale. The following records dealing specifically with copyright are available: out-letters from 1888 (STAT 4), registers of in-letters from 1888 (STAT 5) and files of copyright correspondence from 1887 (STAT 14/27 to STAT 14/255). Information about other Stationery Office records is available in the Open Reading Room at The National Archives.

6. Location of records

Records of the Copyright Office and Stationery Office described in this research guide may be seen only at The National Archives. The Stationers' Company records from before 1842 and the records of voluntary registration from 1912 onwards may be seen at Stationers' Hall, Stationers' Hall Court, London EC4.

7. Arrangement of the copyright registers in COPY 3

7.1 Books, literary and commercial

'Books, Literary' registers contain not only books, plays and stories, but pamphlets and research guides of a technical nature, as well as songs, games, music, prints and advertising matter. 'Books, Commercial' registers contain mainly labels, trade marks, catalogues and advertising matter.

When an entry in the register is followed by the words 'Copy Annexed', it means that a copy of the work concerned is attached to the original entry form.

The indexes give you a volume number and a page number for the entry in the appropriate register.

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

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

7.2 Fine arts

Paintings, drawings and photographs: The registers in this division include both original entries and assignments of all paintings, drawings and photographs which were registered as Copyright. From 1862 to 1883 all the entries are in one General Series of registers.

Contents Registers Indexes
Paintings, Drawings & Photographs 1862-1883 COPY 3/104 to COPY 3/118 200-203
Paintings & Drawings 1883-1912 COPY 3/119 to COPY 3/163 204-212
Photographs 1883 - 1912 COPY 3/164 to COPY 3/199 213-220
Dramatic & Musical 1873-1922 COPY 3/221 to COPY 3/224 225-226
Paintings and Drawings Artistic 1906-1912 COPY 3/149 to COPY 3/152  
Paintings & Drawings Commercial 1906-1912 COPY 3/153 to COPY 3/163  

7.3 Foreign

From 1847 to 1854 foreign copyright entries are made in the General Series of Registry Books, but are separately indexed. After 1883 the Foreign Register is divided into separate divisions such as books, music or prints. Up to 1883 assignments for books, music, prints, sculpture and so on, are included in the General Series, at the end of each volume.

Contents Registers Indexes
Foreign Entries 1846-1912 (inc. in General) COPY 3/4 to COPY 3/7 251-256
Foreign Representations Dramatic, 1883-1912 COPY 3/221, 223, 224, 250  
Foreign Sculpture, Paintings & Drawings 1883-1888 COPY 3/248 to COPY 3/249  
Foreign Prints1883-1888 COPY 3/247  
Foreign Books 1883-1891 COPY 3/241 to COPY 3/242  

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

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 45

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