Who owns the copyright for that book, song or photo you want to use? — Making pre-1978 Copyright Office records more accessible

From 1870 to 1977 there were 16.4 million works registered in the Copyright Office.  Many are still under protection of the Copyright law.  During that same time, the assignment or transfer of rights was recorded for more than 1.7 million works.  So how do you determine if a particular work is still under copyright and who the owner is?  The answers are in the paper and microfilm records in the Copyright Office.  The goal of the Copyright digitization and public access project is to convert these records and to make them widely available online via the web.

As with many historical records, the public records of the Copyright Office do not exist comprehensively in one set or in one format. Rather, for any particular research, there may be several kinds of records that will together show the history and provenance of a copyrighted work. To obtain the most complete and most reliable information, these records must be consulted in combination.

There are five primary sets among the 1870 to 1977 records:

1. Copyright Record Books containing the early records of copyright ownership

2. Bound volumes containing applications for copyright registration

3. Copyright Card Catalog

4. Published Catalogs of Copyright Entries (CCE’s)

5. Copies of documents pertaining to transfer and assignment of copyrights

Copyright records are not only a reference to works that are or were under copyright protection but also an irreplaceable piece of Americana. The records provide a perspective on the evolution of our great nation from its very founding to the present day. Preservation and increased availability are strong arguments for digitizing the records and the digitization priorities of the Office must reflect the priorities and expectations of the public and the value of the records for their use.

The technology now exists to convert the non-digital records of the Copyright Office and to make the information widely available through electronic access. There is growing interest both within and outside the Copyright Office to apply this technology to these records sooner rather than later.  Through this blog we hope to receive your thoughts and ideas so that we can present the records online in a way that will best suit your needs.


  1. Terry Smythe
    December 8, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    At some point in time when all this non-digital data is available on-line, will it be safe to assume that if something is not on the list (e.g. orphans), is not under copyright protection? Specifically, vast quantities of commercial literature, prior to 1935, that had a very short intended life in those years. Such items are Owner’s Manuals, promotional brochures, technical documents, catalogs, etc.


    Terry Smythe
    Winnipeg, Canada

  2. JT
    December 8, 2011 at 5:44 pm


  3. Susie
    December 8, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    This will be a valuable resource. It would be very helpful if it could be organized by format–music, text, av work, etc, as well as by publication year, title, publisher/copyright owner, etc. Bottom line, making the resource fully searchable would be especially helpful.

  4. Mike Burke
    December 9, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Terry, You pose a very good question. Copyright Office Circular 22: How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work, available at


    provides guidance on determining the status of a work. On page 3 of the circular it states that “Searches of the Copyright Office catalogs and records are useful in helping to determine the copyright status of a work, but they cannot be regarded as conclusive in all cases. The complete absence of any information about a work in the Office records does not mean that the work is unprotected.” The circular cites examples.

  5. Dorothy L. Miller
    December 11, 2011 at 11:31 am

    Fantastic goal.I, too, would like to have items arranged by categories. Any idea when such a vast compilation might be reasonably up to date and available online?

  6. Mike Burke
    December 12, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Beginning in 1900, the numbers assigned to registrations have included an alphabetic prefix indicating the class of material such as books, periodicals, music, and visual arts. That data will be used to enable a faceted search of the records by category.

  7. P. M. N.
    December 12, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    A possible source to consider as examples of flexible databases that have both automated and manual update capabilities are the litigation management tools use by a growing number of law firms. I’m familiar with Summation (R) and to a lesser extent, Concordance (R). Both are systems where a firm can load hundreds of thousands of electronic records, from emails and attachments to docs and spreadsheets to scanned documents both large and small. Generally, the basic record will only contain limited date and source info, but it is easily expandable to include dozens of additional fields.

    If the basic info can be put into a database, it might be possible (using a comment to the Dec. 1′st post by Ms. Pallante) to get many virtual volunteers who could then, via online access, add the available fields to each record. Then the USCO could do the QC (easier than manual data entry).

    As a former gov’t software program manager, try to avoid defining the “perfect solution” at the beginning: allow time (and $) to experiment, release beta versions, modify, and expand later. Too often we fall into the trap of doing too much to “get it right the 1st time!” when it is more preferable to get something out for users to give feedback.

  8. P. M. N.
    December 12, 2011 at 11:45 pm

    My previous comment focused more on the technical aspects the USCO faces–and then I read about the project status and realized you’re further along than I first thought.

    As to thoughts regarding online record presentation to “best suit my needs,” here are a few:
    1. Don’t worry about “appearance,” (e.g., presentation–>how it looks). There are many ways to alter a display.
    2. Don’t worry about getting all the flexibility right the first time. Everyone may prefer something a little different. It seems your data may be flexible enough that this would be easy to change later.
    3. It might be helpful to focus on certain time-periods from the pre-1977 data. In particular, given the increased awareness of termination of rights, why not concentrate on info from 46 to 59 years ago (within the current “56 year” termination window). Please consider including recent transfer documentation as well.
    4. Along similar lines–while books available for transfer of rights are important, don’t forget the incredible volume of musical compositions during this timeframe.

    These are the things I would personally like to see addressed. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  9. Mike Burke
    December 15, 2011 at 10:14 am

    With the tens of millions of cards and record book pages to process, it’s difficult to say when the digitization, indexing and public access will be completed. However, as we work backward through the six multi-year time bands in the catalog, we will make the records available online as they are completed. As an interim measure, we are also considering making the images of the catalog cards available through drawer level indexes enabling online searching that mimics a search of the actual card catalog. Input on the latter idea is most welcome and appreciated.

  10. Sarah A. V. Kirby
    December 15, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    Be sure to coordinate with folks at Stanford who’ve had a database online for several years with some of your records – http://collections.stanford.edu/copyrightrenewals/bin/page?forward=home – no sense in reinventing the wheel entirely. It might help jump-start your efforts also.

  11. text
    June 23, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    This is very attention-grabbing, You’re an overly professional blogger. I have joined your rss feed and look ahead to searching for extra of your wonderful post. Additionally, I have shared your site in my social networks

  12. Donald McQueen
    August 10, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    whoah this blog is excellent i love reading your posts. Keep up the great work! You know, lots of people are searching around for this info, you could help them greatly.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. Your submission may be subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.