History of Copyright Symbol
November 8, 2009 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone point me to the origins/history of the © symbol? I've read that the symbol was first called for in U.S. Copyright Law in the 19th Century - but where does the symbol come from?

My google fu is in "you suck" mode today.

I'm searching for information/articles on the origins of the copyright symbol (©) - and please don't tell me the answer is in the latest Dan Brown novel.

I'll accept answers that suggest databases and journals that I should research for this kind of information!
posted by cinemafiend to Law & Government (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What is now called the "Universal Copyright symbol" according to this page it was adopted internationally in 1952.

However, that doesn't answer your question. The oldest reference to the phrase "copyright symbol" I find in google books is from 1892. I suspect what you need is a historic law library, to check what exactly were the copyright laws at various points in the 19th century, to see when the copyright symbol showed up as a valid indicator of copyright in the legal code.

(As an aside, I also longingly read this article, from back when people needed to register copyrights and there were actual penalties for falsely claiming copyright, unlike now when you find publishers slapping copyright notices on public domain works.)
posted by fings at 4:10 PM on November 8, 2009

Best answer: The Copyright Act of 1909 definitely called for it. It was not mentioned in the Copyright Act of 1870 [pdf], nor the Copyright Act of 1790.

The UK Copyright Act of 1842 does not mention the symbol, and the Act of 1842 was the last UK copyright act before the UK became a signatory to the Berne Convention in 1887.

Berne Convention signatories (i.e. most of the world) would not have used the symbol, since the Berne Convention forbids any such formalism in order for a work to enjoy copyright protection. The US, however, only became a party to the Berne Convention in 1989, which is why the copyright symbol still has a lot of currency here.

The 1892 mention that fings found is intriguing. I thought perhaps the author was speaking about the Chace Act (i.e. the International Copyright Act of 1891), but the Chace Act does not discuss the copyright symbol.
posted by jedicus at 4:30 PM on November 8, 2009

That 1892 mention is probably not actually 1892. A major failing of Google Books is that serials (like the Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the American Library Association in which the snippet is found) are listed with the date of the start of the series, not the date of the issue in which the snippet appears. The typography doesn't look like 1892, either.
posted by beagle at 5:37 PM on November 8, 2009

Best answer: That 1892 hit from Google Books is just Google giving the first year the periodical was published, not the actual year of the appearance of the word. It's very annoying that Google Books does that and I wish they would fix it.

I have access to a legislative history of the 1909 Copyright Act, "Legislative History of the 1909 Copyright Act" (E. Fulton Brylawski & Abe Goldman eds., comps.) (1976) It's on HeinOnline if you have access to that.

One of the documents, "Stenographic Report of the Proceedings of the Librarian's Conference on Copyright", 3d Session, at Library of Congress, Washinton, D. C., March 13-16, 1906 (which seems to have been a meeting of representatives of the publishing industry and authors, artists, etc.) gives a draft of the proposed Act, which interestingly doesn't include the section about the copyright symbol.

There is then some discussion in that document, where the artists don't want to have to put a long copyright notice on their works and it is suggested just using a letter C and the artist's name. I don't see where they come up with C in a circle though. It might be in the legislative history somewhere, I'm just looking at it quickly.

Here is some of it:

MR. ELSON: In regard to the question of inscribing, I should
like to ask where an inscription that was put on covering the
copyright varies in any way from the inscription, the ordinary in-
scription, which would not cover the copyright. How can any-
body who sees a work of art know the difference between a work
which has been copyrighted, and one which has not? It would
seem to me very necessary to make some distinction between a
copyrighted work of art and an uncopyrighted work of art.
MR. BOWKER: The simple letter "c" with the name of the ar-
tist, --- would not that be practicable?
MR. MILLET: We object to anything beside our names.
MR. FULLER: The Canadian law does not require anything
but the name.
MR. MILLET: I represent the Fine Arts Federation of New
York, apd their opinion is unanimous on this point.
MR. FULLER: It seems to me that this question comes back
very much to what was solved by Mr. Steuart with reference to
publication with the notice. If the statute makes publication and
the affixing of the notice a sufficient protection for the copyright,
then the statute can also make the artist's name upon a painting
a sufficient protection for his work; and that is precisely what
we intended to do, and that is what the artists are asking for.
MR. LIVINGSTONE: As print publishers, we have had to con-
sider the practical difficulty, and while we appreciate quite fully
some of the troubles which Mr. Elson foresees, that there will be
trouble for print publishers, following the change in the law, --
you cannot make these changes without some difficulties arising,
and after careful consideration of the matter, we believe we can
adapt ourselves without much trouble to the request of the artists.
We can very shortly decide that after a consideration of the trou-
bles we shall have to encounter.
MR. STEUART: Might I be permitted. The proposed Section
16 which provides for the vesting of copyright provides that a no-
tice shall be applied, and then publication shall follow, and
provides that the notice of copyright in every case shall be
"Copyright" and the name of the copyright claimant. It would be
quite possible to add a third clause,

"And in the case of works of art, the name of the

We have this legislative history in our library. If you are interested in it MeFi mail me and I'll take a look at it tomorrow when I get to work.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:44 PM on November 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Try googling for the symbol's technical term "arobase" to get rid of the cruft.

The London Review of Books had an interesting article on this symbol earlier this year that indicates that it came not from copyright originally, but from the financial/accounting world.

Interestingly, the article has generated a fair number of letters in the LRB in subsequent issues regarding the various (and far more interesting) names for the symbol in non-English languages. I mean, saying the gruff "at sign" really can't compete with the German/Dutch "monkey's tail" can it now?
posted by webhund at 6:21 PM on November 8, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far - I am thinking that I am going to have to dig pretty deep to find this information.

And thanks for the offer interplanetjanet - I am not going to take you up on that yet. I have access via HeinOnline as well, so I'll do some digging around for a while.

This might be a good candidate for "Ask the Librarian" at the Library of Congress or Stanford Law Library...
posted by cinemafiend at 6:34 PM on November 8, 2009

Best answer: Here is a an article in The Writer from 1906, describing copyright legislation under consideration which became the act of 1909, describing the circle-C symbol.

Also from 1906: arguments before the committees on patents of the Senate and House of Representatives.

This post suggests the symbol dates to the Berne convention of 1886 However, I find no references in the Berne text or prior to the above 1906 mentions of the circle-C, both of which quote the then-proposed act. It doesn't seem likely the symbol was invented purely as part of the drafting of the act, however. Possibly it had come into informal use during the years leading up to 1906 and was then codified into the law.

I have checked a bunch of books I have that were published between 1890 and 1915 and find that none of them have the symbol - typically they say "Copyright [year]". Possibly it took a few decades before the symbol came into widespread use — it seems likely that it would have taken a while to become a standard item in the typographer's inventory after being included among the options provided in the copyright law in 1909.

And on preview @cinemafiend: the @symbol history is fascinating in its own right, but is not the same as the copyright Circle-C ©.
posted by beagle at 6:46 PM on November 8, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks beagle - but you should have previewed one more time...
posted by cinemafiend at 7:07 PM on November 8, 2009

Thanks for the correction on the 1892 -- I didn't realize that Google does that with periodicals, I'll watch for it in the future.

The other story I linked about the photographer falsely using the copyright symbol is from 1913, so it would appear that its use spread fairly quick after the 1909 act.
posted by fings at 7:31 PM on November 8, 2009

Best answer: One of the things to keep in mind is that the 1909 Act allowed only certain types of works to use the c in circle symbol, specifically:

(f) Maps.

(g) Works of art; models or designs for works of art.

(h) Reproductions of a work of art.

(i) Drawings or plastic works of a scientific or technical character.

(j) Photographs.

(k) Prints and pictorial illustrations including prints or labels used for articles of merchandise.

Books were required to print the longer form of the notice.

It does look like the symbol was a compromise between the artists, who wanted no copyright notice to be required, and the publishers who wanted as long a notice as possible. See page 68 of this Hearing about the proposed bill.

But I still can't find why they decided on that particular symbol. Probably just using a C would have been confusing in cases of artists whose initial was C.

It is possible the symbol was used before the 1909 Act, but I don't think it would have met the legal requirements for notice of copyright under the prior copyright law, so it wouldn't have made much sense to use it. From my quick look at copyright treatises at that time the law was very specific about the form of notice and if you didn't follow it you lost your copyright.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:47 PM on November 8, 2009

Best answer: Sorry about that, cinemafiend. S/B @webhund.

This 1913 History of Copyright by Richard Bowker (the Bowker firm still is active in bibliographic services) mentions the Circle C without detailing its origin. Hunting around that 1906 congressional testimony I wonder if the idea came out of the 1905 conference among copyright stakeholders described in the hearing (page 3). Artists were specifically represented, including the painter/decorator John La Farge as president of the Society of Artists. The conference was closed, so there may not be a detailed record of its proceedings.
posted by beagle at 8:15 PM on November 8, 2009

More on the 1905 copyright conference. This was the June session. It met again in November and once more in 1906; I don't find those issues on Google right off the bat.

It occurs to me that it might be worth contacting Bowker's and see if they have an archivist who would have more detailed records of the conference.
posted by beagle at 12:46 PM on November 9, 2009

Best answer: The copyright conference proceedings are in the legislative history I mentioned above, "Legislative History of the 1909 Copyright Act"

I looked a bit more in the index today, and although I still don't see any direct mention of how they came up with the symbol, I did find this exchange from the 2nd session of the Copyright Conference, New York City, November 1-4, 1905, p. 261:

MR. LIVINGSTONE: In the matter of notice, there are two
other suggestions. If that abbreviation "Cop" is to be used, why
not use "Ct?" Why not also drop out "by?"
MR. SOLBERG: Why "Ct?"
MR. LIVINGSTONE: Because it is one letter shorter.
MR. SOLBERG: But "Cop." is commonly the abbreviation.
We ought not to have a provision which is not self-explanatory.
MR. LIVINGSTONE: Instead of having "U.S.Cop." is it not
possible or practicable to have a mark, which would be under-
stood as the sign of copyright?
MR. SOLBERG: How would an outsider understand that? The
very purpose of the notice is that a man does not require to go
anywhere to get information as to the notice of copyright.
MR. LIVINGSTONE: -I do not advocate it.

Mr. Livingstone is W. A. Livingstone, secretary of the Print Publishers' Association of America.
posted by interplanetjanet at 2:44 PM on November 9, 2009

Best answer: Livingstone's comments suggest that as of November 1905 the Circle C had not yet been proposed. But by the time of the June 1906 testimony, the Circle C was in the proposed text of the legislation. The conference held a third session in March, 1906, at which time it finalized the proposed legislation. The testimony indicates that in the interim, between the November and March sessions there were "various minor consultations and much correspondence". This suggests that the symbol arose in the interim, probably during the "minor consultations."

On page 22 of the testimony (linked above), Frank D. Millet, an artist, speaks. He says that in Europe he has had no trouble with copyrights on pictures, but in the US his rights have been infringed. (Interestingly, he says that's why many artists spend so much time in Europe.) He states that artists disliked the previously required copyright notice as a disfigurement of the image; that the bill as written doesn't meet the "highest desire" of artists, which would be to require no notice whatsoever was is the case in Europe; but that "we met our friends, our dearest foes, the reproducers, and made this compromise, which is satisfactory to us on the question of the notice, as to what we shall put on the picture without disfigurement..." He appears to be referring to the Circle C on works of art, photographs, etc. as a compromise between no notice (the preference of artists) and the standard notice required on printed works.

For further research: Is there mention of this compromise in the record of the March session? Also: how often and for how long did artists actually put the symbol on their work? I can't recall seeing it along with the customary signature and date.
posted by beagle at 9:05 AM on November 14, 2009

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