1909 Copyright Act Conference Recap (five months late…)

By Eric Goldman

[Note: I’m embarrassed to admit that it has taken me 5 months to write this recap. Normally at this late date I’d just give up, but for an event 100 years in the making, a 5 month delay is a drop in the bucket]

Back in April, the High Tech Law Institute and the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology co-sponsored a Conference on the 100th Anniversary of the 1909 Copyright Act. The event brought together two dozen top copyright experts as speakers and attracted a huge and enthusiastic audience of over 150 folks (that’s after a huge flake rate exacerbated by the height of swine flu fears). For a niche topic with only a little relevance to most folks’ daily practice, the audience turnout exceeded our wildest expectations.


Overall, the single biggest theme of the day was the speakers’ love/hate relationship for the formalities-driven 1909 Act, which largely divided on generational lines. Folks who practiced under the 1909 Act came to bury it, not praise it. For example, Marybeth Peters said the “1909 Act served its purpose, and I’m glad it’s gone.” Jon Baumgarten, GC of the Copyright Office at the time of the 1976 Act, had even less kind things to say about the 1909 Act. Among other things, he said that he was “astonished by the nostalgia for the 1909 Act,” that “everyone working towards the 1976 Act thought they were making a very substantial improvement,” and “the wonderful world of copyright formalities was really only wonderful for the lawyers.” (He gave a horrifying example of writing a 30 page memo on the differences between affixing a work with a circle C vs. a triangle C).

In contrast, folks who started practicing after the 1976 Act largely lamented the progressive loss of formalities since the 1976 Act. For example, Bill Patry praised the 1909 Act as “one of the great copyright acts of all time, superior to our current one,” and he ended his talk with a rallying cry: “Long Live the 1909 Act!”

This struck me as a classic grass-is-greener situation. Formalities served the valuable purpose of excluding works from copyright protection, increasing the public domain, but formalities also can be illogical, unfair and just plain tedious. In either direction, whether you like copyright formalities or not, be careful for what you wish for!

One other contextual note: As it turned out, the conference came just days after the sad passing of Barbara Ringer, the former register of copyrights who is largely credited as the author of the 1976 Copyright Act which ended the 1909 Act and wiped away its formalities. A WSJ retrospective on Barbara Ringer.

Other Media Coverage

Some other recaps from the day:

* Mike Masnick

* BNA (sorry, BNA subscription required)

* Campus Technology

Colette Vogele did an amazing job of live tweeting the event (something I still find amusing–as if there would be hot news about a statute that has been dying for the past 33 years!). Look for her tweets from April 30, 2009. I know there were numerous other tweeters in the audience, but unfortunately my references to those have dissolved in my 5 month delay, and Twitter’s search engine is non-functional.

Relive the Day!

If you didn’t make it (or even if you did), you can watch the videos from the event at iTunesU (sorry, the iTunes client required). The specific sessions:

* Welcome

* Marybeth Peters’ opening keynote address

* First panel–Copyright Subject Matter

* Second panel–Authorship and Ownership

* Bill Patry’s lunchtime keynote address

* Third panel–Formalities

* Fourth panel–Rights & Limits, Part 1

* Fifth Panel–Rights & Limits, Part 2

* David Nimmer’s closing keynote address

We also posted loads of photos and some papers associated with the event.

Thanks to the speakers and everyone who came for such a great day!