Famed photographer Napoleon Sarony filed a copyright infringement suit against the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company, which had marketed unauthorized lithographs of Sarony's photograph of writer Oscar Wilde, entitled "Oscar Wilde No. 18." The company argued that photographs could not qualify as "writings" or as the production of an "author", in the language of the grant of power to Congress under article I, section 8, clause 8 of the United States Constitution to protect copyrights, and so § 4952 of the Copyright Act of 1870, which explicitly extended protection to photographs, was unconstitutional. The federal trial court for the Southern District of New York, though expressing some doubt over the constitutionality of § 4952, declined to invalidate it and awarded a $610 judgment to Sarony (the equivalent of just over $12,000 in 2005). The judgment was affirmed by the U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York, and subsequently by the Supreme Court.
Even if other visual works could be copyrighted, Burrow-Giles argued, photography was merely a mechanical process rather than an art, and could not embody an author's "idea". The Court accepted that this may be true of "ordinary" photographs, but this was not in the case of Sarony's image of Wilde. The trial court had found that Sarony had posed Wilde in front of the camera and suggested his expression, and selected his costume, the background and accessories to create a particular composition of line and light. This control that Sarony exercised over the subject matter, in the view of the Court, showed that he was the "author" of "an original work of art" over which the Constitution intended Congress to grant him exclusive rights.