U.S. Copyright Office
Authors and artists . . . creating, expressing their ideas . . . the feelings that are in all of us.
Their talents are as varied as they are. But each shares something in common; something that allows them to create and produce freely; something that helps ensure ownership of their life’s work. That something is copyright.
Copyright is a form of legal protection automatically given to all creators of original works of authorship. Copyright protection is provided for both published and unpublished works and gives the owners, or their representatives, the exclusive right to:
Copyright protection is equally available for the first-time author or the publishing giant . . . for the aspiring composer or the established record company. It allows individual creators and companies to own their work and to receive compensation for its use. It has not always been this way.
Ironically, copyright was once used as a means of censorship by the English crown to maintain control over everything printed in the realm. It was not until the Statute of Anne, in 1710, that an author’s legal right to his or her own work was fully recognized. English colonists, coming to these shores, brought with them the legal precedents for copyright.
The United States’ first national copyright law was passed in 1790. It initially protected only the authors of books, maps, and charts. But in the ensuing years, Congress added musical compositions, dramas, fine prints, commercial prints, labels, cartoons, and photographs to the growing list of copyrightable materials.
By the end of the 19th century, creative materials of all kinds and descriptions were being produced by the thousands. But such growth and proliferation began to strain the laws of a simpler era. And in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law a new Copyright Act that would last almost 70 years.
Among its many provisions, the 1909 law created a 28-year term of copyright protection, with a renewal term of another 28 years. The law also codified and clarified legal protections for nearly all areas of artistic expression. And it reaffirmed the principle that applicants must deposit copies of their registered work to ensure the full benefits of copyright protection.
The Library of Congress had been America’s sole repository of copyright deposits since 1870. By placing these deposits in their permanent collections, the Library soon became one of the world’s great research institutions.
The person most responsible for this development was Ainsworth Spofford—Copyright Officer of the United States and Librarian of Congress from 1865 to 1897. Spofford envisioned a grand national Library built on the foundations of copyright deposits. The problem was where to put it all.
Located at that time in the Capitol building, Spofford’s office had no room to expand. There were 70,000 books piled everywhere on the floors. Valuable prints and irreplaceable maps had no adequate storage facilities. Cataloguing became a losing battle, and only Spofford’s remarkable memory prevented many deposits from becoming hopelessly lost.
Finally, in 1886, Congress authorized a new structure to house our national collection. When the Library of Congress building was completed in 1897, the Copyright Office became a separate department of the Library. Besides its better storage facilities, the entire Copyright Office was thoroughly equipped and organized by the time the 1909 law came into effect.
But the 20th Century, remarkable for its rapid technological advances, began opening even newer avenues to creativity and its products. And as the number and diversity of copyright registrations began to double and even triple, it became abundantly clear that copyright would have to once again undergo significant change.
Today the Copyright Office receives well over half-a-million deposits a year. There’s a modern office—in the Library of Congress’ James Madison Memorial Building—modern, automated procedures for retrieving, tracking, and cataloging deposits . . . the development of an Internet registration and recordation system, modern equipment—for the creative products of a high-tech age . . . complex responsibilities for divisions such as Licensing, which must administer copyright royalties generated by electronic-age technologies such as satellite rebroadcast systems, and digital audio transmissions . . . and a modern, up-to-date law that allows for the future protection of works yet unknown today.
In effect since January 1, 1978, the current copyright law protects a work for the author’s lifetime plus an additional 50 years. For commissioned works or works made for hire—that is, by businesses or their employees—copyright generally lasts 75 years from the work’s publication. [Note: The term of protection has been amended since this video was published. The current term is an author's lifetime plus 70 years. For works made for hire, the duration of copyright is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.] The law originally required copyright owners whose works were published or registered before 1978 to file renewal applications for a second term. But in 1992, renewal was made automatic. However, the law offers incentives to encourage the filing of renewal applications.
Registering an original work with the Copyright Office is not required to maintain copyright protection under the present law. Once an original work is written down, recorded, or tangibly fixed in an acceptable form, it is, in effect, copyrighted, and no action by the Copyright Office is necessary.
There are, however, several advantages to registering a copyright claim:
Copyright protection is available for:
The United States copyright law protects these and other creative endeavors, but it does not protect:
Some creative works not protected by copyright may be subject to protection offered by patent, trademark, or unfair competition laws.
Owners of copyrightable material who choose to register their works with the Copyright Office will find the procedure rather simple. They must send in a properly completed application form, a filing fee, and a deposit of the work being registered—one copy for unpublished works, two for published ones.
Some works do not have to be deposited in their original form to secure registration. Proper identifying material, such as a photograph or drawing, is all that is required for certain items—particularly three-dimensional ones.
To avoid problems with any registration, it is important to send all three items to the Copyright Office at the same time and in the same package, if possible. These packages should be sent with a check or money order to:
The Register of Copyrights
There is no requirement that applications be prepared or filed by an attorney. It is important, however, for the applicant to fill out the correct form:
A copyright registration is effective on the date all three items are received in acceptable form at the Copyright Office. The time it takes the office to process an application will vary. The office must check all applications and deposits, call or write registrants if there are problems, and carefully record and log each item. All applicants who meet the legal requirements for registration will receive a Certificate of Registration once Office procedure is complete.
It used to be important for copyright owners to put a notice of copyright on all published works. For works published on or after March 1, 1989, use of the notice is optional.
If a notice is used, it should be clearly visible and contain the following elements:
For sound recording, copyright owners should use the “p” in a circle symbol , instead of the “c” in a circle ©.
The copyright law requires two deposit copies from all authors who publish a work in the United States. These and other deposits are then made available to the Library of Congress. Library representatives come to the Copyright Office every day to make selections. And although not everything is selected, all deposits are catalogued and listed in the permanent records of the Copyright Office.
These records also reflect transfers of copyright ownership and documents pertaining to copyright that have been recorded in the Copyright Office, such as assignments, licenses, contracts, mortgages, wills, power of attorney, etc.
The records are open to the public for search and review. Here one can find the works of the famous and not-so-famous. They bear witness to the magnificent output of the American creative mind. If researchers want information pertaining to the history or ownership of individual registrations, they can search the files themselves, or, for an hourly fee, the office will search the files for a requester. It will not, however, investigate the content of a registration or compare it to existing or pending registrations for possible infringements. Records dated from 1978 forward are also available via the Internet.
Copyright and the protection it offers is an important concept that all artists and authors should be acquainted with. Circular 1—Copyright Basics—is a good starting point for understanding copyright protection, registration, and deposit. And there are scores of other free publications. In addition, the office’s most important circulars, application forms, and other information may be accessed 24 hours a day via the Internet. Most of these are also available by FAX.
Copyright Information Specialists are also available to the public for questions and guidance, and with the exception of giving legal advice, will help with inquiries any way they can.
Within the many divisions that make up the United States Copyright Office, there are personnel whose tasks and duties touch every aspect of copyright, including reporting to Congress about any and all developments in the world of copyright.
Copyright, after all, is an ever-changing, ever-evolving process. We’ve come a long way since 1790. The books and maps have been joined by games, textile designs, architecture, videos . . . and computer programs. Other technologies will be added . . . new laws will come to pass . . . but change will not alter the principle of copyright.
Copyright is fixed in American law and life. It protects creators of original works of authorship and gives them the freedom and economic incentive to produce more and varied products. In so doing, copyright enriches the cultural output of the nation, and that benefits all of us.
July 23, 2002