Bartow Copyright Collection : Wallace...circus of a copyright case

Shows the Supreme Court has been looking at copyright controversies for hundreds of years. Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co., 188 U.S. 239 (1903)

Appellants, members of a company engaged in the lithography business, brought an action for copyright infringement under U.S. Rev. Stat. §§ 4952, 4956, 4965, alleging that appellees copied chromolithographs prepared by appellants' employees to advertise a circus. The lower court upheld a directed verdict for appellees on grounds that the works were not within the protection of the copyright laws. On appeal, the Court reversed, holding that the works were entitled to copyright protection. The design belonged to appellants, copyrights were taken out in the proper names prior to publication, and the works were pictorial illustrations protected by 18 Stat. §§ 78, 79 (1874). The Court said that it saw no reason to construe the statute as protecting only pictorial illustrations "connected with the fine arts," but that even if it did, the works would be protected, because even ordinary posters used in advertisements were original works entitled to protection. The Court also said that appellants' case was not affected by the fact that the lithographs may have represented actual groups of people and things, and remanded for a new trial.

Outcome

The judgment was reversed and the case remanded. The works copied by appellees, chromolithographs prepared by appellants' employees and copyrighted before publication, were entitled to the protection of the copyright laws as original pictorial illustrations, even though they were ordinary posters used in advertisements.