Skip Navigation Links  The Library of Congress >> Researchers
Motion Picture and Television Reading Room (Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division)
  Home >> Reading Room >> Early Motion Pictures

Early Motion Pictures Free of Copyright Restrictions in the Library of Congress

Jump to: Introduction | The Paper Print Collection | History | Contents | Additional Information | The George Kleine Collection | The Theodore Roosevelt Association Collection


There are three major collections of early motion pictures among the holdings of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress (M/B/RS): the Paper Print Collection, the George Kleine Collection, and the Theodore Roosevelt Association Collection. Taken together, they comprise one of the largest assemblages of pre-Hollywood American cinema in the world. Films from the Paper Print Collection may be duplicated without obtaining permission from any rights holders, but there are copyright and donor restrictions for some of the titles in Kleine and Roosevelt. You will need to check with an M/B/RS Reference Librarian regarding the status of specific films from these two collections. For information regarding costs and polices for moving image duplication, see the Obtaining Copies of Motion Pictures in the Collection.

The Paper Print Collection

This collection spans the years 1894-1915, with the bulk of the films dating prior to 1912. Consisting of approximately 3,000 titles, there is probably no more important single collection of motion picture film in the Library of Congress. It is one of the largest collections of early productions available and encompasses all period genres. 16mm reference prints and printing negatives exist for all titles. In addition, M/B/RS has been producing vastly superior new 35mm copies from the original paper rolls for several years, and plans to continue until the entire collection has been re-photographed. This is good news for both scholars and footage researchers because the paper prints have been, and remain, the most active of all collections in M/B/RS.


Remarkably, the original materials in this collection are not motion picture films, but rolls of paper strips, deposited in the Copyright Office as part of registration of motion picture productions. Prior to 1912 copyright law made no explicit provision for motion pictures, so some entrepreneurs in the burgeoning entertainment industry (Thomas Edison and his assistant W.K.L. Dickson being the first) found a way to protect their properties by registering them as photographs, submitting contact prints on photographic paper. While the nitrate copies of so many of these films were scattered or self-destructed, the paper-based photographs survived in relatively good condition, patiently awaiting discovery and a rekindled interest in the history of our motion picture heritage.

The best-known materials among these copyright deposits are the full-length paper positive copies that have been copied to film and are described in a published catalog, currently out of print but available in libraries (see the MARVEL document "Moving Image Finding Aids and Guides" for a citation). This restoration project, in which the printed-on-paper images (many without perforations) were re-photographed frame-by-frame onto 16mm celluloid is an interesting story in itself, and garnered an Academy Award for Kemp Niver in 1955.


The Paper Print Collection encompasses the full range of American filmmaking activity during the early years of the industry. The first deposit was received in 1894; the practice ended rather quickly after a 1912 revision of copyright law expanded its protection to motion pictures in their own right. Notable latecomers were a number of 1914 and 1915 Keystone productions.

Among the 3,000 titles one finds comedies, dramas, and actualities (genuine and artificial) on a wide variety of topics. Period cameras (of the hand-cranked variety) recorded such historical events as the Spanish-American War, the Russo-Japanese War (there are numerous "reconstructions" or reenactments among the latter two), and the Boxer Rebellion; international fairs and expositions in Buffalo, St. Louis and Paris; boxing matches, the America's Cup and automobile races; fire departments, trains arriving and departing from many locations around the country, urban mass transit in Boston. New York, where the pre-Hollywood film industry was centered, is most frequently represented in urban street scenes. Historical figures include Admiral George Dewey, Prince Henry of Prussia, Jack Johnson, William McKinley, Buffalo Bill, and Theodore Roosevelt.

There are a few early advertising films, many vaudeville acts, "peep shows" and several early animations. From the brilliance of some thirty works by Georges Melies and films shot by Edwin S. Porter (including his GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY), to gruesome scenes of patients having epileptic seizures and a bizarre Edison film showing the actual electrocution of an elephant at Coney Island, the collection reveals the wide spectrum of quality and subject matter that existed at the time.

The productions are primarily U.S. in origin. In fact, a considerable portion of the collection originated from two companies: the Thomas A. Edison Company and the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (later and more widely known as the Biograph Company). A wide variety of smaller American companies are also represented: for example, Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene, responsible for a handful of unusual films shot in Oklahoma, including THE BANK ROBBERY, a 1908 Western featuring ex-outlaw Al Jennings; and a few foreign producers of fictional works. The small number of valuable actuality films made in foreign locations, including Mexico, Egypt and the Philippines, were produced by American Companies.

Researchers interested in the history of the motion picture will find over 300 films supervised by D.W. Griffith and performances by the legendary actors Joseph Jefferson and Sarah Bernhardt. A great deal of effort was made to identify production and performance credits for publication in the latest edition of the catalog.

Picture quality, as one might expect of films copied from paper, is not the best. There are additional problems with registration (jumpy image) and deterioration of some of the paper originals. However, the new 35mm copies have proven to be far superior to the old 16mm versions. Among these are films of remarkable quality, and visitors to the Reading Room can view three videodiscs (5 1/2 hours of play time in all) produced by the American Memory Project, that used only the 35mm copies. For more information about these videodiscs, see the MARVEL document American Memory Collections of Early Films on Videodisc. Also, the Library of Congress's National Digital Library has mounted digital versions of the films on the videodiscs on the World Wide Web (

Additional Information

The riches of the Paper Print Collection have made it the Division's most popular subject for articles. In addition to introductory pieces in both editions of the catalog there are:

Niver, Kemp R. "From Film to Paper to Film," THE QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. Vol. 21, no. 4, October 1964, pp.248-64. The story of the paper print conversion program.

Spehr, Paul C. "Some Still Fragments of a Moving Past," THE QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. Vol. 32, no. 1, January 1975, pp 33-50. Edison films in LC.

The George Kleine Collection

Dating from 1898 to 1926, the 456 films in the Kleine Collection were purchased in 1947 from the estate of George Kleine, a film industry pioneer who specialized in importing European productions. The films span all genres, including drama, comedy, educational and actuality films. The collection is probably most notable for its Italian epics, including CABIRIA and QUO VADIS, but also such popular stock footage items as PUSH CARTS, LOWER EAST SIDE. The collection also includes DELIVERANCE (1919), a biography of Helen Keller that includes appearances by Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

Reference prints (almost all 16mm) are available for the entire collection (the absence of 35mm material provides a lesson instructive to archivists. The collection of 35mm nitrate was acquired in the Division's infancy and copied onto safety film before the Library had its own preservation laboratory. For reasons of economy, 16mm reduction prints were made and the nitrate destroyed. That was not a shocking decision at the time, though it certainly is a sad one from today's perspective, particularly when new 35mm prints of the Paper Print Collection and from nitrate holdings demonstrate the improvements a laboratory could make today).

An excellent published catalog (now out of print but available in libraries) describes the Kleine Collection films with credits, physical description, shelf numbers, summaries, notes on related materials (e.g. stills and scripts) purchased with the film and a subject index. See the MARVEL document MOVING IMAGE FINDING AIDS AND GUIDES for a full citation. In addition, catalog records for the films in the Kleine Collection are in the Library's MUMS database, searchable via the internet using the LC-MARVEL gopher or see SEARCH THE LIBRARY'S ONLINE CATALOG on the M/B/RS home page.

The Theodore Roosevelt Association Collection

This collection consists entirely of actuality films concerning the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt. As the catalog introduction points out, "He was the first U.S. president whose life was extensively recorded and preserved in the motion picture format. The collection reveals that although Roosevelt obtained fame before the motion picture form was perfected, he was one of the most frequently photographed subjects among public men."

In 1967 the National Park Service transferred to the Library of Congress 381 early news films documenting the career of Theodore Roosevelt. Collected in the 1920s and 1930s by the Theodore Roosevelt Association, the films were first housed in the Association's library at the Roosevelt birthplace in New York City, then turned over to the National Park Service when the building was designated a national historic site in 1962. The collection covers Roosevelt's activities from his "Rough Rider" days through his later life, with the emphasis on the period 1909-19. Roosevelt, a favorite subject for newsmen, is shown at major political events of the day, as well as in the company of family members, friends and internationally famous celebrities. Also in the collection are films of Roosevelt's funeral and several posthumous tributes.

Reference prints and printing negatives are available for all titles. Unlike the Kleine Collection, much of the Roosevelt Collection has been preserved in 35mm, although many of the reference prints and some of the negatives are in 16mm. Another unusual aspect of the material in this collection is the existence of different versions - both in length and format - of several productions. The footage researcher should note these variations carefully; they can either complicate or ease research and pricing of copies.

The films are individually listed on cards in the Film and Television Catalog and described in a published catalog (now out of print but available in libraries): "the Theodore Roosevelt Association Film Collection: a Catalog". For a full citation, see Motion Picture Finding Aids and Guides.

Top of Page Top of Page
  Home >> Reading Room >> Early Motion Pictures
  The Library of Congress >> Researchers
  August 31, 2010
Legal | External Link Disclaimer

Contact Us:  
Ask a Librarian