Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company v. Sarony. 111 U.S. 53; 4 S. Ct. 279; 28 L. Ed. 349; 1884 U.S. LEXIS 1757
This landmark Supreme Court case rose about when Burrow-Giles lithographic company when Napoleon Sarony, a photographer of “Oscar Wilde No. 18,” sued the company for copyright infringement when it distributed lithographs of the photography without author’s consent and permission. The Company’s main argument was that photographs are products of a mechanical process, and is therefore not an art, and are not protected under article I, section 8, clause 8 of the United States Constitution—photographs are not produced under authorship as other means of art, such as writing and painting, are. Supreme Court concludes that Congress has the constitutional power to extend copyright protection to new emerging medium of expression, such as photography that represent “original intellectual conceptions” and “ his own genius and intellect.” The Court first argued that since Sarony included “Copyright, 1882, by N. Sarony,” at the corner of his photograph, it gave sufficient notice to the public of his exclusive right to the work. Secondly, although the Constitution does not include photographs under works of authorship in which are protected under copyright, it is only because the technology, when the statute was written in 1790, was not in existence. Providing the evidence that charts and maps were included under protection in Copyright Act of 1790, the court concludes that since photographs are a medium in which “idea of mind given a visible expression,” they also qualify under copyright protection under the constitution. Court goes further on, stating no ordinary photography of which “transferring to the plate the visible representation of some existing object” will not be given a copyright. Only photographs that are “useful, new, harmonious, characteristic, and graceful…entirely from his own original mental conception” and in effectively doing so—showcasing enough expression and originality to be granted such a protection. With this case, Supreme Court demonstrated a great activism in promoting and introducing new medium of expression to the culture. However, the last clause to the court’s argument, that a photograph must express sufficient originality according to court’s standard to be considered an art, creates a very subjective and aesthetic basis to which future photographic art/and recreations of the medium are to be judged. Words that were used by Justice Miller to describe an original photography are words conceptualized with different meanings according to every person’s mind and artistic taste. Law should be a concrete rule which should be understood and interpreted, to an extent, on a same level, and the aesthetics required by the court’s decision set minimal base to which people can agree on. This was the first real case in which the court’s decision in granting the copyright based entirely upon a subjective and aesthetic decision. I will argue the loosely set standards in the decision created inconsistency and unpredictability in future cases and did little to mold society a clear conception of photography as art.