Highlight: Congress Passes First Comprehensive Copyright Law of the Twentieth Century

The Copyright Act of 1909 (Public Law 60-349) was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt and went into effect on March 4, 1909. The 1909 act granted protection to works published with a valid copyright notice affixed on copies. Accordingly, unpublished works were protected by state copyright law, but published works without proper notice fell into the public domain. The copyright term remained at twenty-eight years with a renewal term of twenty-eight years, but the author was granted the right to terminate any transfer of his copyright between the initial and renewal term. The 1909 act also included the first compulsory mechanical license, allowing the reproduction of a musical composition without the consent of the copyright owner provided the person adhered to the provisions of the license.

The amendment of the 1909 act began shortly after its enactment, with the extension of copyright protection to motion pictures on August 24, 1912. Prior to that date, motion pictures had to register their works as a series of still photographs. Then, on January 1, 1953, recording and performing rights were extended to nondramatic literary works. Finally, on February 15, 1972, Congress extends federal protection to sound recordings fixed and first published after that date (leaving older sound recordings protected under state law).

The movement for general revision of the 1909 act began in 1955. Starting in 1962, Congress passed a series of nine acts that provided interim extensions for works whose copyright protection began between September 19, 1906, and December 31, 1918, if they were in their renewal terms. These extensions allowed copyright protection to continue while Congress undertook preparations for the next comprehensive copyright revision.