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I. 1783-1790
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I. 1783-1790

Although the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law on 15 May 1672 prohibiting any printer from printing more copies of a book than its author had agreed to,[5] and although occasional ad hoc copyright acts were passed in the colonies upon the petition of particular individuals, there was no general copyright act in any of the states until Connecticut instituted one in January 1783. Massachusetts and Maryland followed in March and April, and on 2 May 1783 the Continental Congress passed a resolution recommending that each of the states work out a copyright law. Between that time and 1790, when the first federal law was enacted, all the other states except Delaware passed copyright laws, in several cases through the energetic sponsorship of Noah Webster.[6]


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Of particular interest to bibliographers in these twelve laws are any provisions they contain for registration or deposit. Whenever copyrighted works were to be registered, some sort of ledger or record book for that purpose must have existed at one time and might be extant today; whenever copyrighted works were to be deposited, the deposit copies might still survive, or at least a record of the deposits to prove that certain books once existed. The list below sums up these features of the state laws:[7]

Date of Law  Term of Copyright (years)  Renewal Period (years)  Registration Required  Deposit Required 
Connecticut  8 Jan. 1783  14  14  yes  no 
Massachusetts  17 March 1783  21  --  no  yes 
Maryland  21 April 1783  14  14  yes  no 
New Jersey  27 May 1783  14  14  yes  no 
New Hampshire  7 Nov. 1783  20  --  no  no 
Rhode Island  Dec. 1783  21  --  no  no 
Pennsylvania  15 March 1784  14  14  yes  no 
South Carolina  26 March 1784  14  14  yes  no 
Virginia  Oct. 1785  21  --  yes  no 
North Carolina  19 Nov. 1785  14  --  yes  yes 
Georgia  3 Feb. 1786  14  14  yes  no 
New York  29 April 1786  14  14  yes  no 
In addition, seven states (Conn., Mass., N. H., R. I., N. C., Ga., N. Y.) specifically included a provision extending copyright privileges to citizens of other states only if the states involved had similar laws. And in five states (Conn., S. C., N. C., Ga., N. Y.), an author who did not allow a sufficient quantity of his books to be printed or charged an excessive price for them could be required to have more printed or lower the price; if he failed to comply, the state could authorize the complaining party to print additional copies.

It can be seen from the list that nine states made the registration of titles a requirement for copyright. In six (Conn., N. J., S. C., N. C., Ga., N. Y.), registration was to be made with the Secretary of State; in Maryland it was to be handled by the "clerk of the general court," in


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Pennsylvania by the "prothonotary's office in the city of Philadelphia," and in Virginia by the "clerk of the council." Two of the laws (Md., S. C.) specifically mentioned the "register" into which the titles were to be entered. Two of the states (Md., Pa.) with registration requirements, however, had the further clause that the law was not to go into effect until such time as "all and every" of the states had enacted similar laws; since Delaware never passed a copyright law, the state copyright laws did not go into effect in Maryland or Pennsylvania either, and the number of possible record books is therefore presumably reduced by two (although, as it turns out, copyright entries were made in both states). As for the deposit of copies, only two states had such a clause — Massachusetts and North Carolina. In Massachusetts, two copies of each work were to be presented to "the library of the University of Cambridge [Harvard], for the use of the said university"; in North Carolina (the only state to require both registration and deposit), one copy of each work was to go — before publication — to the Secretary of State "for the use of the executive of the State."

Of the nine possible sets of records and the two groups of deposit copies, the records for Connecticut, Maryland, and South Carolina have been located among state archives and the copies for Massachusetts have been traced in the Harvard library:

  • Connecticut, 1783-89: Connecticut Archives (Colleges and Schools), 1st ser., II, 154-55, 159-61, 165-68. Published in The Public Records of the State of Connecticut, ed. Leonard W. Labaree, V (1943), 245-46, 459; VII (1948), 87. See also James Hammond Trumbull, List of Books Printed in Connecticut, 1709-1800 (1904), items 308, 954, 998. [5 entries]
  • Maryland, 1786: Maryland Provincial Court Deeds, Liber T. B. H. No. 1, f. 532. Published in Irving Lowens, "Copyright and Andrew Law," PBSA, LIII (1959), 152-53. [8 entries]
  • Massachusetts, 1783-90: Deposit copies in the Harvard Library. Published in Earle E. Coleman, "Copyright Deposit at Harvard," Harvard Library Bulletin, X (1956), 135-41. [11 entries]
  • South Carolina, 1785-88: Georgia Grants Ledger, pp. 1-4, in the office of the Secretary of State. Published in "Copyrights and Patents Granted by South Carolina," South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, IX (1908), 56-58. [6 entries for books]
The located Connecticut records show only three entries (for Robert Ross, Joel Barlow, and William Blodget) under the 1783 act; but Trumbull, in his list of Connecticut imprints, supplies the registration dates of two more (for Andrew Law and John Lewis).[8] In addition, the Connecticut General Assembly granted Andrew Law a five-year


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copyright ("patent") for certain pieces of music in October 1781, fourteen months before the state passed its general law.[9] The eight Maryland entries of 7 January 1786 (for works by four men — Webster, Dwight, Barlow, and Law) were published in an article by Irving Lowens, whose thorough research has impressively demonstrated the bibliographical value of copyright records. The other most important investigation into pre-1790 copyright is Earle Coleman's essay, which records eleven Harvard deposit copies with the deposit dates for each (works by Barlow, Belknap, Billings, Bingham, French, Law, Webster, and Wood); undoubtedly other volumes were deposited which cannot now be located. The six South Carolina entries, published as long ago as 1908, are for books by David Ramsay, Henry Osborne, Noah Webster, Robert Squibb, Nicolas Pike, and John F. Grimke.

Another aspect of copyright legislation in which bibliographers are interested is whether or not printed notices of copyright were required in copyrighted books. Only one of the state laws — in Pennsylvania — had such a clause; but, since Pennsylvania's law was not to become effective until all the other states had copyright laws, one should not expect to find printed notices even in Pennsylvania books. Nevertheless, such notices do appear, and a list of books with these notices forms at least a partial record of Pennsylvania pre-1790 copyrights. Charles Evans, working on the sixth and seventh volumes of his American Bibliography (1910, 1912), located fourteen works with these printed notices and recorded the copyright dates given in twelve of them. These references constitute in effect another published copyright record:

Pennsylvania, 1784-89: Evans 18883 (Wharton); 19628 (Lutheran Church); 20471 (M'Culloch); 20481 (Markoe); 20632 (Lloyd); 20862, 20869 (Webster); 20889 (Wilson); 21081 (Falconer); 21365, 21371 (Lloyd); 21568 (Wall); 21651 (American Philosophical Society); 21745 (Columbian Magazine). [14 entries]
Of the two books for which Evans did not give the date of copyright entry, one, Henry Wharton's Letter to the Roman Catholics (Evans 18883), contains only the statement (at the foot of the last page), "Entered according to Act of Assembly";[10] but the other, the second edition of the opening volume of the Transactions of the American


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Philosophical Society (Evans 21651), does carry the entry date of 29 April 1789. When Roger Bristol's list of additions to Evans is completed, it is possible that more books with Pennsylvania copyright notices can be traced.

Apparently none of the copyright records of the other five states with requirements for registration are in existence, for officials in those states have not been able to turn up any copyright material for this period.[11] It is occasionally possible, however, to learn something of the copyright registrations in these states through secondary documents — such as the 1842 letter from Stephen Dodd to George Hood, in the Boston Public Library, which gives the Pennsylvania (1784) and New York (1786) registration dates for Andrew Law's music books.[12] Judging from the located records, the number of registrations in each state was probably quite small, and the information could have been entered in ledgers mainly devoted to something else — just as the South Carolina entries are found on the opening pages of a volume labeled "Georgia Grants," recording plats of land granted by Georgia authorities. Such records are naturally difficult to locate, and it is not impossible that more of them will eventually come to light. In the meantime, bibliographers must be content with copyright information concerning fewer than forty American books before 1790.