The Copyright Act of 1909 (Pub.L. 60–349, 35 Stat. 1075, enacted March 4, 1909) was a landmark statute in United Statesstatutorycopyright law. It went into effect on July 1, 1909. The 1909 Act was repealed and superseded by the Copyright Act of 1976, which went into effect on January 1, 1978; but some of 1909 Act’s provisions continue to apply to copyrighted works created before 1978. It allowed for works to be copyrighted for a period of 28 years from the date of publication but extended the preexisting renewal term of 14 years (effective as of the Copyright Act of 1831) to 28 years, for a maximum of 56 years (in place of the former 42 years).
Before the 1909 Act, the last major revision to United States copyright law was the 1790 Act. Methods of reproducing and duplicating works subject to copyright had significantly increased since the 1790 Act. President Theodore Roosevelt expressed the need for a complete revision of copyright law as opposed to amendments, saying in a message to Congress in December 1905, “Our copyright laws urgently need revision. They are imperfect in definition, confused and inconsistent in expression; they omit provision for many articles which, under modern reproductive processes, are entitled to protection; they impose hardships upon the copyright proprietor which are not essential to the fair protection of the public; they are difficult for the courts to interpret and impossible for the Copyright Office to administer with satisfaction to the public.”
Under the 1909 Act, federal statutory copyright protection attached to original works only when those works were 1) published and 2) had a notice of copyright affixed. Thus, state copyright law governed protection for unpublished works, but published works, whether containing a notice of copyright or not, were governed exclusively by federal law. If no notice of copyright was affixed to a work and the work was “published” in a legal sense, the 1909 Act provided no copyright protection and the work became part of the public domain. In the report submitted by the House Committee on Patents, they designed the copyright law “not primarily for the benefit of the author, but primarily for the benefit of the public.” The 1976 Act changed this result, providing that copyright protection attaches to works that are original and fixed in a tangible medium of expression, regardless of publication or affixation of notice.
It also created (codified in Section 1(e)) the first compulsory mechanical license to allow anyone to make a mechanical reproduction (known today as a phonorecord) of a musical composition without the consent of the copyright owner provided that the person adhered to the provisions of the license. (Congress intended it to govern piano rolls.) In later practice, compulsory license made it possible to record and distribute a cover version of a hit song – once a recording had been released, and the copyright owner was served with a notice of intention to use – that directly competed with the original.