Registration & Research
Copyright protection is often misunderstood. A creator does not need to file or register his/her work with the US Copyright Office in order to secure rights for that work. A work is copyrighted automatically when it is “fixed” for the first time by the creator. (Remember, copyright protection can only be granted to works that have been fixed in some medium.) The duration of that protection for all works created on or after January 1, 1978, is the life of the author plus 70 years. For works with multiple authors, the term is 70 years after the death of the last surviving author.
Although registration is not a condition of copyright protection, there are several benefits; it is a legal formality that produces a public record of the copyright claim. Additionally, registration is required to seek statutory damages in a copyright infringement lawsuit that is filed in court for works originating in the United States. Registration may be made at any time within the original term of the copyright (the life of the author plus 70 years.)
To register a copyright, a creator must file a claim with the US Copyright Office. The application consists of three parts: a completed application form, a filing fee, and a nonreturnable “deposit.” The deposit is a copy of the work submitted to the Copyright Office.
For specific information about the copyright status of an older work, there are currently two online databases available, as well as the Copyright Card Catalog in the Library of Congress, in which research may be necessary. Where you begin your research depends on the date of your item. See U.S. Copyright Office Circular 22 How To Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work for copyright research guidance.
Briefly, the card catalog contains copyright records spanning registration of works dating from 1790 through 1977. The online catalog is available for works registered or renewed from January 1, 1978, to present. See U.S. Copyright Office Circular 23 The Copyright Card Catalog and the Online Files of the Copyright Office for specific information regarding content in each. Copyright renewal records received by the US Copyright Office between 1950 and 1992 for Class A books published in the US between 1923 and 1963 may be accessed using Stanford University’s Copyright Renewal Database.
The U.S. Copyright Office has begun scanning pre-1978 registration records to make them electronically accessible to researchers. The Office has proposed to create a virtual card catalog that would serve as an interim step to the long-term effort of capturing index terms from the scanned card images using OCR and keyboarding, with the ultimate goal of building indexes for online searching. The Copyright Matters blog provides weekly updates about this enormous project.