Happy Anniversary to ‘Fred Ott’s Sneeze,’ the First Known Copyrighted Documentary Film


On January 9, 1894, one of the first films to ever be copyrighted by the Library of Congress received that honor after arriving in the mail that very day. The title was Edison Kinetoscope Record of a Sneeze, though it was popularly called “The Sneeze” and is now more commonly known today as “Fred Ott’s Sneeze.” Shot a few days earlier by William K.L. Dickson and mailed on January 7th, the five-second motion picture was commissioned by Harper’s Weekly for an article promoting the new Edison invention — an article that oddly refers to the sneeze being heard as well as seen, plus a response of “Bless you, Mr. Ott!,” implying there might have been a phonograph accompaniment.

We can consider this a documentary film in spite of it being a record of a planned action. It’s a cause and effect doc, not unlike the experiment-based films we’ve gotten since Super Size Me began a trend. What happens when you inhale snuff? You sneeze. The funny thing is that legend has it Ott (an assistant to Thomas Edison) didn’t sneeze on the first take and they had to try again. Few documentaries have reshoots, though Nanook of the North was pretty much a retake in its entirety, and today it’s probably done more often than we think. As the sneeze in the film turned out anyway, it very well could have been faked for all anyone knows.

Some sources still claim that Sneeze is the first film to receive copyright, though prior to this, Dickson had sent some other kinetoscope works to the Library of Congress yet the materials were lost and so we have no idea what those films were. As for the copyright, of course, it’s now expired and the film is in the public domain. So you can celebrate its 120th anniversary by watching it below.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.