Historical Public Records Program

Drawers in Copyright records reading room

Program Overview

One of the Copyright Office’s long-term goals is to make all public records available and searchable online. The Historical Public Records Program encompasses several projects that aim to provide the entire physical catalog of copyright records in an easily searchable online format for the public.

Prior to 1978, copyright records were handwritten or typed and stored at the Copyright Office. These records have only been available to view in person at the Copyright Office Reading Room in Washington DC. When completed, the Historical Records Program will provide web access to the pre-1978 copyright registration records dating back to 1870 when copyright was centralized under the Library of Congress.

Program Goals

The Historical Public Records Program has two primary goals: to secure and preserve historical records through digitization and to make these records available online in an easily searchable format. This effort also aligns with one of the Copyright Office’s strategic goals—to make copyright records easily searchable and widely available to authors, entrepreneurs, and all who need them—by making pre-1978 copyright records available online.

In fiscal 2011, the Copyright Office signed a project charter titled Copyright Records Digitization, Phase 1, which focused solely on scanning the Copyright Card Catalog into TIFF images, which addresses the need to preserve the card catalog in digital format. This scanning project was completed in 2014, and the TIFF images filled the requirement for preservation as a digital archival copy of the Card Catalog. The archive now exists in the Library’s Content Transfer Services (CTS) system.

Digitization of the record books and some select portion of the microfilm rolls will start in fiscal 2019 pending available funding.

In 2010, through an outside partnership, the Copyright Office completed scanning of one full set of CCE annotated volumes. The Office also secured a set of the scanned images from Internet Archive, which are stored onsite at the Library. These images need to be ingested through the CTS to create the completed archive, which would meet the preservation goal.

The uncorrected OCR text pages of the scanned CCE annotated volumes can be searched and viewed online through Internet Archive. The scanned and indexed CCE page images are also made available on the internet by Google Books. Both of these resources provide a useful search interface by displaying the original page image in response to queries.

In 2015, work began on making the card catalog available and searchable online. The Copyright Office began by converting the images into JPEG and JPEG2000 file formats and creating text from the card images generated using Optical Character Recognition (OCR). The JPEG images serve as the service copy that will be viewed by the public online. The oldest cards are mostly handwritten, and therefore represent the biggest challenge in the card collection. Once converted, all the cards will be available in an online Virtual Card Catalog (VCC). The launch of the VCC is the first attempt at making the digitized Copyright Office card catalog available online. The first two set of cards 1955-1970 and 1971-1977, will go live in January 2018, and the remaining cards will go live at a later date. The Office is working in reverse chronological order to complete the effort with a focus on the time periods that are of the most interest to the public and are most likely still under copyright protection. With the launch of the VCC, the Office is seeking public input on the format and interface to assess how the public uses the online information. This input will drive the direction for future online historical records.

Progress Overview

The Office's mission is to make all copyright public records available online. The Copyright Office began the process by digitizing the Card Catalog of Entries (CCE) followed by the Card Catalog records. The Office will continue making all records digital by scanning the other sets of records to complete the digitization process. The next phase is making the records searchable online in the Copyright Public Records System (CPRS), which requires the capture of searchable metadata. Below is an informational graphic that details the progress underway to make these records digital and searchable online. This graphic will be updated as progress continues.


Historical Records Pre-1978 Copyright Records

The Copyright Office holds the most complete and accurate collection of copyright records of ownership in the world. The majority of works recorded in the Copyright Office may still be under copyright protection, therefore the value of accessing accurate, complete, legal records of copyright ownership cannot be overstated. Originally, copyright registrations were filed with federal district courts where they were handwritten in record books. When the copyright function was centralized in the Library of Congress in 1870, requests for copyright registration were examined, numbered, and recorded by Library staff in records books. This system was maintained until 1889 when a card system went into effect. The oldest record books dating back before 1870 are held in the Library of Congress Rare Book Collection which is located in Washington DC. These records are not part of this effort but are under consideration for future efforts.

The physical Copyright Office historical records comprised a card catalog, Catalog of Copyright Entries (CCEs) volumes, record books, and microfilm. Each of these records provided a specific purpose in the physical search of copyright information.

About the Record Types

Drawer open; card catalog

Card Catalog

The physical Copyright Card Catalog is the finding aid that enables users to find Copyright Office records from 1870 through 1977.

Stacked books; card catalog

Catalogs of Copyright Entries

The Catalogs of Copyright Entries (CCE’s) volumes are compilations of brief registrations and renewals during specific time periods ranging in length from semi-weekly to semi-annually.

Historical copyright record book open; title page

Record Books

The original and full artifacts of registration and recordation are stored in the copyright record books, except for the time period of 1898 through 1945, when copyright applications were created on card stock. After 1945, paper applications were bound into record books. There are an estimated 19 million registrations housed in approximately 26,000 Copyright Office record books. An additional set of record books contains recordation information showing legal documents recorded by the Copyright Office between 1870 and 1977 transferring and assigning copyright ownership. There are an estimated 500,000 paper assignment documents in 897 bound volumes. An index of those assignments is also included in the Copyright Card Catalog.

Stacked microfilm and case


There are approximately 23,000 microfilm reels housed in the Copyright Office Reading Room and in the Library’s Jefferson Building. These reels provide service copies for the content of the copyright record books, and the collection holds historical record book information, copies of certificates, and other copyright artifacts. The Copyright Office also maintains microfilm copies of the pre-1870 records. The digitization of the microfilm reels is pending an inventory of the microfilm and record books along with an analysis to determine if any of the microfilm content is not available in other formats (e.g., records books).