The 19th Century

Highlight: The Supreme Court Decides the First Copyright Case

The U.S. Supreme Court did not decide its first case, Wheaton v. Peters, 33 U.S. 591 (1834), until well over 40 years after the 1790 Act was established. In reviewing the copyrightability of what is now the United States Reports, the Court established that Congress had the power to require conditions for copyright, that common-law copyright did not exist in published works, and that no one could copyright court opinions but could copyright summaries or the opinions of others.


The dispute was between a court reporter, Henry Wheaton, who was in charge of publishing the Supreme Court’s opinions and his successor, Richard Peters Jr., who published Wheaton’s series of court reports without his consent. In an opinion by Justice John McLean, the Court rejected Wheaton’s claim of copyright under the 1790 Act for failure to adhere to the Act’s deposit provisions as well as under common law. It ruled that “no one can have a copyright who does not substantially comply with the requisitions of the law.” It also stated “no reporter has or can have any copyright in the written opinions delivered by this court and the judges thereof cannot confer on any reporter any such right.”


This case is of enormous importance since it established that copyright is not a natural right, but derived from statute and subject to the condition it imposes. The significance of this case was felt in 1790, as some of the most famous litigators of the day argued before the Court. Daniel Webster and Elijah Paine Jr. represented Wheaton while Charles Jared Ingersoll and John Sergeant represented Peters.


  • Highlights of Registered Works
  • The Macedonian Is Registered

    December 22, 1813

    George Godsell Thresher registers etchings depicting the battle of the USS United States and the HMS Macedonian. Charles Clinton, District Court clerk for the Southern District of New York, annotates the registration with a freehand drawing depicting the copyright deposit.

  • "Statue of Liberty" Is Registered

    August 31, 1876

    French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi registers the "Statue of American Independence," depositing a photo model and artistic rendering of how the statue was to appear against the New York skyline.