A principle of American law is that an author of a work may reap the fruits
of his or her intellectual creativity for a limited period of time. Copyright
is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States for original
works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, architectural,
cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and
audiovisual creations. “Copyright” literally means the right to
copy. The term has come to mean that body of exclusive rights granted by law
to authors for protection of their work. The owner of copyright has the exclusive
right to reproduce, distribute, and, in the case of certain works, publicly
perform or display the work; to prepare derivative works; in the case of sound
recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission;
or to license others to engage in the same acts under specific terms and conditions.
Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, slogan,
principle, or discovery.
Role of the Copyright Office
The Copyright Office provides expert assistance to Congress on intellectual
property matters; advises Congress on anticipated changes in U.S. copyright
law; analyzes and assists in drafting copyright legislation and legislative
reports and provides and undertakes studies for Congress; and offers advice
to Congress on compliance with multilateral agreements, such as the Berne Convention
for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. The Office works with the
Executive Branch’s Department of State, the U.S. Trade Representative’s
Office, and the Department of Commerce in providing technical expertise in
negotiations for international intellectual property agreements; provides technical
assistance to other countries in developing their own copyright laws; and,
through its International Copyright Institute, promotes worldwide understanding
and cooperation in providing protection for intellectual property.
The Copyright Office is also an office of record, a place where claims to
copyright are registered and where documents relating to copyright may be recorded
when the requirements of the copyright law are met. The Copyright Office furnishes
information about the provisions of the copyright law and the procedures for
making registration, explains the operations and practices of the Copyright
Office, and reports on facts found in the public records of the Office. The
Office also administers the mandatory deposit provisions of the copyright law
and the various compulsory licensing provisions of the law, which include collecting
Additionally, the Copyright Office and the Library of Congress administer
the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panels, which meet for limited times for
the purpose of adjusting rates and distributing royalties.
Brief History of the Copyright Office
The Constitution gives Congress the power to enact laws establishing a system
of copyright in the United States. Congress enacted the first federal copyright
law in May 1790, and the first work was registered within two weeks. Originally,
claims were recorded by Clerks of U.S. District Courts. Not until 1870 were
copyright functions centralized in the Library of Congress under the direction
of the then Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford. The Copyright Office
became a separate department of the Library of Congress in 1897, and Thorvald
Solberg was appointed the first Register of Copyrights.
Today the Copyright Office is one of the major service units of the Library
of Congress. With public offices located at 101 Independence Avenue, S.E.,
Washington, D.C., the Office occupies portions of the James Madison Memorial
Building and employs more than 500 people. In a recent fiscal year, the Office
and its staff received more than 607,000 claims representing over a million
works, registered more than half a million claims to copyright and mask works
(semiconductor chip designs), recorded documents containing over 300,000 titles,
and collected for later distribution to copyright holders nearly $200,000,000
in cable television, satellite carrier, and Audio Home Recording Act compulsory
license funds. Since 1870, the Copyright Office has registered more than 30,000,000
claims to copyright and mask works and provided many millions of deposits (including
books, serials, motion pictures, music, sound recordings, maps, prints, pictures,
and computer works) to the collections of the Library of Congress. The Library,
a great repository of more than 126 million items, has been greatly enhanced
through the operations of the copyright system, and copyright deposits form
the heart of the Library’s Americana collections.
Functions of the Copyright Office
The mission of the Copyright Office is to promote creativity by administering
and sustaining an effective national copyright system. While the purpose of
the copyright system has always been to promote creativity in society, the
functions of the Copyright Office have grown to include the following:
Administering the copyright law
The Copyright Office is headed by the Register of Copyrights. Assisting the
Register are the Copyright General Counsel and the Associate Register for Policy
and International Affairs, who provide legal advice and counsel to the Register.
The Chief Operating Officer coordinates policy and congressional relations
and represents the Register of Copyrights in a wide range of management, operational,
policy, and legislative issues.
The Copyright Office examines all applications and deposits presented to
the Copyright Office for the registration of original and renewal copyright
claims to determine their acceptability for registration under the provisions
of the copyright law and Copyright Office regulations. The Office also records
documents related to copyright ownership. In addition, the Office examines
claims to mask work protection filed under the Semiconductor Chip Protection
Act of 1984 and claims in vessel hull designs filed under the 1998 Vessel Hull
Design Protection Act. The Office creates and provides public records of all
deposits, registrations, recordations, and other actions.
The Copyright Office is responsible for using and enforcing the mandatory
deposit requirement of the Copyright Act of 1976 and Copyright Office regulations
to acquire works needed for the collections of the Library of Congress. The
law requires that two copies of the best edition of every copyrightable work
published in the United States be sent to the Copyright Office within three
months of publication.
The Copyright Office is in charge of administering compulsory and statutory
licenses. Compulsory licenses are issued for the public performance of sound
recordings by means of a digital audio transmission; for making and distributing
phonorecords; for public performances on coin-operated phonorecord players;
and for the use of certain works in connection with noncommercial broadcasting.
Statutory licenses are issued for secondary transmissions by cable systems;
for making ephemeral recordings; for secondary transmissions by satellite carriers
for private home viewing; and for secondary transmissions by satellite carriers
for local retransmissions. A statutory obligation exists for distribution of
digital audio recording devices or media. The Office collects royalty fees
from cable operators for retransmitting television and radio broadcasts; from
satellite carriers for retransmitting “superstation” and network
signals; and from importers or manufacturers who distribute digital audio recording
devices or media in the United States. After deducting its full operating costs,
the Office invests the balance in interest-bearing securities with the U.S.
Treasury for later distribution to copyright owners.
The Copyright Office and the Library of Congress administer the Copyright
Arbitration Royalty Panels, which meet for limited times for the purpose of
adjusting rates and distributing royalties.
Creating and maintaining a public record through registration of claims and
recordation of documents, including those related to compulsory licenses
The Copyright Office records the bibliographic descriptions and the copyright
facts of all works registered in the Copyright Office as well as the copyright
facts of all works deposited but not registered in the Office to comply with
the copyright law, thus providing effective reference access to all information
of record relating to registrations, deposits, recorded assignments, and other
documents. The Office also maintains records of all documents related to copyright
ownership that are submitted for recordation.
The archives maintained by the Copyright Office are an important record of
America’s cultural and historical heritage. Containing nearly 45 million
individual cards, the Copyright Card Catalog housed in the James Madison Memorial
Building comprises an index to copyright registrations in the United States
from 1870 through 1977. The Copyright Card Catalog, together with post1977
automated files, provides an index to copyright registrations in the United
States from 1870 to the present. A large part of the literary, musical, artistic,
and scientific production of the United States and of many foreign countries
is recorded in these files. They are an important supplement to the Main Catalog
of the Library of Congress as a research tool.
Other records that supplement the Copyright Card Catalog include the Catalog
of Copyright Entries, which is, in effect, the Copyright Card Catalog
published in book form from July 1, 1891, through 1978 and in microfiche
from 1979 through 1982. These records from 1978 forward are available for
searching over the Internet at www.copyright.gov.
Additionally, approximately 150,000 copyright registrations from 1790 through
1870 were registered in the Office of the Clerk of each U.S. District Court.
Most of these records are available on microfilm in the Copyright Office.
Researchers may investigate the ownership of a copyright by examining the
Assignment and Related Documents Index and the Copyright Office History Documents
file and may obtain copies of original applications and documents for a fee.
The Copyright Office maintains public records of transactions related to the
compulsory licenses it administers, including the secondary transmission of
copyrighted works on cable television systems and by satellite carriers for
private home viewing; the making and distributing of phonorecords; the use
of certain works in connection with noncommercial broadcasting; public performance
of copyrighted music on jukeboxes from 1978-1989; and initial notices of distribution
filed by importers or manufacturers of digital audio recording devices or media.
Providing technical assistance to the Congress and to executive branch agencies
As a service unit of the Library of Congress, the Copyright Office is part
of the legislative branch of government. The Office provides copyright policy
advice to Congress. At the request of Congress, the Copyright Office advises
and assists the Congress in the development of national and international copyright
policy; drafts legislation; and prepares technical studies on copyright-related
The Copyright Office works with other U.S. government agencies and international
organizations to promote adequate and effective protection of U.S. copyright
works internationally. In addition to the Department of State, the Office works
with the Department of Commerce and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
in negotiating with foreign countries to improve the copyright protection afforded
U.S. authors in these foreign countries, either in bilateral copyright treaties
or trade agreements or in multilateral efforts.
Providing information services to the public
The Copyright Office provides public information and reference services concerning
copyrights and recorded documents. It responds to all copyright information
and reference requests from the public; produces and supplies Copyright Office
forms and publications; furnishes search reports based on Copyright Office
records; prepares certifications and other legal documents; provides for the
inspection of works submitted for copyright registration; prepares authorized
reproductions of works submitted for registration; and preserves, maintains,
and services copyright-related records, including the deposits registered.
The public may visit the Copyright Public Information Office or call (202)
7073000. Recorded information on copyright is available 24 hours a day, seven
days a week. Information specialists are on duty to answer questions in person
or by phone or email from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., eastern time, Monday-Friday,
except federal holidays. The Copyright Office Forms and Publications Hotline
number, (202) 707-9100, is available 24 hours a day to accept requests for
specific registration application forms and for any of the large number of
informational circulars published by the Copyright Office. Address written
inquiries to Library of Congress, Copyright Office, Publication Section, LM-455,
101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20559-6000.
Most of the information that the Copyright Office makes available on paper
is also available for viewing and downloading from the extensive Copyright
Office website at www.copyright.gov.
In addition, Copyright Office catalog files from 1978 forward may be examined
online through the website.
The public can keep up on developments in the Copyright Office by subscribing
to U.S. Copyright Office NewsNet, a free electronic mailing list that issues
periodic email messages to alert subscribers to hearings, deadlines for comments,
new and proposed regulations, new publications, and other copyright-related
subjects of interest. Subscribe on the Copyright Office website. For a fee,
members of the public may obtain additional certificates of registration and
certified copies of Office records. Copies of deposits may be obtained upon
the request of the owner of the copyright in the deposit, by an attorney in
connection with litigation involving the copyrighted work, and through a court
order issued by a court having jurisdiction in a case in which the copy is
to be submitted as evidence.
For a fee, the Office will conduct searches of the records and prepare reports
on the copyright facts of registrations and recordations. In addition, the
Office will assist the public in using the public records of the Office.
the Library of Congress by obtaining and making available deposits for the
In 1870, Congress passed a law that centralized
the copyright system in the Library of Congress. No legislation was more
important to the development of the Library than that law, which required all
authors to deposit in the Library two copies of every book, pamphlet, map,
print, and piece of music registered in the United States.
created more than 130 years ago, has served the nation well. Supplying the
information needs of the Congress, the Library of Congress has become the
library and America’s national library. This great repository of more
than 126 million books, photographs, maps, films, documents, sound recordings,
computer programs, and other items has been created largely through the operations
of the copyright system, which brings deposits of every copyrighted work into
the Library. In one recent year alone, the value of these deposits was more
than $30 million.
The Copyright Office also serves as an advisor to the Library
on all copyright issues, including those related to the National Digital
Library Program. It supports the collection development needs of the Library
through Office deposit regulations. Its partnership extends to many joint projects,
such as the current program to register and deposit copies electronically.
The Register of Copyrights also serves as Associate Librarian of Congress
for Copyright Services.
Serving as a resource to the domestic and international
The Copyright Office consults with interested
copyright owners, industry and library representatives, bar associations,
and other interested parties on issues related to the copyright law.
Copyright Office promotes improved copyright protection for U.S. creative
works abroad through its International Copyright Institute. Created within
the Copyright Office by Congress in 1988, the International Copyright Institute
provides training for high-level officials from developing and newly industrialized
countries and encourages development of effective intellectual property
laws and enforcement overseas.
The Copyright Office actively cooperates with
U.S. business interests and the Department of State in matters concerning
international copyright relations, proclamations, and treaties. The Copyright
Office represents the interests of the United States at international meetings,
including as a member of U.S. delegations.
Registers of Copyright
- Thorvald Solberg, Register 1897-1930
- William L. Brown, Acting Register 1930-1934; Register 1934-1936
- Clement L. Bouvé, Register 1936-1943
- Richard De Wolf, Acting Register 1944-1945
- Sam Bass Warner, Register 1945-1951
- Arthur Fisher, Acting Register 1951; Register 1951-1960
- Abraham L. Kaminstein, Register 1960-1971
- George D. Cary, Register 1971-1973
- Abe A. Goldman, Acting Register 1973
- Barbara Ringer, Register 1973-1980
- David Ladd, Register 1980-1985
- Donald Curran, Acting Register 1985
- Ralph Oman, Register 1985-1993
- Barbara Ringer, Acting Register 1993-1994
- Marybeth Peters, Register 1994-present
Notable Dates in United States Copyright
- August 18, 1787
- James Madison submitted to the framers of the Constitution a provision
“to secure to literary authors their copyrights for a limited time.”
- June 23, 1789
- First federal bill relating to copyrights (H.R. 10) presented to the
- May 31, 1790
- First copyright law enacted under the new U.S. Constitution. Term of
14 years with privilege of renewal for term of 14 years. Books, maps, and
charts protected. Copyright registration made in the U.S. District Court
where the author or proprietor resided.
- June 9, 1790
- First copyright entry, The Philadelphia Spelling Book by John
Barry, registered in the U.S. District Court of Pennsylvania.
- April 29, 1802
- Prints added to protected works.
- February 3, 1831
- First general revision of the copyright law. Music added to works protected
against unauthorized printing and vending. First term of copyright extended
to 28 years with privilege of renewal for term of 14 years.
- August 18, 1856
- Dramatic compositions added to protected works.
- March 3, 1865
- Photographs added to protected works.
- July 8, 1870
- Second general revision of the copyright law. Copyright activities, including
deposit and registration, centralized in the Library of Congress. Works
of art added to protected works. Act reserved to authors the right to create
certain derivative works including translations and dramatizations. Indexing
of the record of registrations began.
- March 3, 1891
- First U.S. copyright law authorizing establishment of copyright relations
with foreign countries. Records of works registered, now called the Catalog
of Copyright Entries, published in book form for the first time in
- January 6, 1897
- Music protected against unauthorized public performance.
- February 19, 1897
- Copyright Office established as a separate department of the Library
of Congress. Position of Register of Copyrights created.
- July 1, 1909
- Effective date of third general revision of the copyright law. Admission
of certain classes of unpublished works to copyright registration. Term
of statutory protection for a work copyrighted in published form measured
from the date of publication of the work. Renewal term extended from 14
to 28 years.
- August 24, 1912
- Motion pictures, previously registered as photographs, added to
- classes of protected works.
- July 13, 1914
- President Wilson proclaimed U.S. adherence to Buenos Aires Copyright
Convention of 1910, establishing convention protection between the United
States and certain Latin American nations.
- July 1, 1940
- Effective date of transfer of jurisdiction for the registration of commercial
prints and labels from the Patent Office to the Copyright Office.
- July 30, 1947
- Copyright law codified into positive law as title 17 of the U.S. Code.
- January 1, 1953
- Recording and performing rights extended to nondramatic literary works.
- September 16, 1955
- Effective date of the coming into force in the United States of the Universal
Copyright Convention as signed at Geneva, Switzerland, on September 6,
1952. Proclaimed by President Eisenhower. Also, date of related changes
in title 17 of the U.S. Code.
- September 19, 1962
- First of nine special acts extending terms of subsisting renewal copyrights
pending Congressional action on general copyright law revision.
- February 15, 1972
- Effective date of act extending limited copyright protection to sound
recordings fixed and first published on or after this date.
- March 10, 1974
- United States became a member of the Convention for the Protection of
Producers of Phonograms Against Unauthorized Duplication of Their Phonograms,
which came into force on April 18, 1973.
- July 10, 1974
- United States became party to the 1971 revision of the Universal Copyright
Convention as revised at Paris, France.
- October 19, 1976
- Fourth general revision of the copyright law signed by President Ford.
- January 1, 1978
- Effective date of principal provisions of the 1976 copyright law. The
term of protection for works created on or after this date consists of
the life of the author and 50 years after the author's death. Numerous
other provisions modernized the law.
- December 12, 1980
- Copyright law amended regarding computer programs.
- May 24, 1982
- Section 506(a) amended to provide that persons who infringe copyright
willfully and for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial
gain shall be punished as provided in Section 2319 of title 18 of
the U.S. Code, "Crimes and Criminal Procedure."
- October 4, 1984
- Effective date of Record Rental Amendments of 1984. Grants the owner
of copyright in a sound recording the right to authorize or prohibit the
rental, lease, or lending of phonorecords for direct or indirect commercial
- November 8, 1984
- Federal statutory protection for mask works became available under the
Semiconductor Chip Protection Act with the Copyright Office assuming administrative
responsibility. Copyright Office began registration of claims to protection
on January 7, 1985.
- June 30, 1986
- Manufacturing clause of the Copyright Act expired.
- March 1, 1989
- United States adhered to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary
and Artistic Works.
- November 15, 1990
- Section 511 added to copyright law. Provided that states and state employees
and instrumentalities are not immune under the Eleventh Amendment from
suit for copyright infringement.
- December 1, 1990
- Effective date of the Computer Software Rental Amendments Act of 1990.
Grants the owner of copyright in computer programs the exclusive right
to authorize or prohibit the rental, lease, or lending of the program for
direct or indirect commercial purposes.
- December 1, 1990
- Protection extended to architectural works. Section 106A added to copyright
law by Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. Granted to visual artists certain
moral rights of attribution and integrity.
- June 26, 1992
- Renewal registration became optional. Works copyrighted between January
1, 1964, and December 31, 1977, automatically renewed even if registration
- October 28, 1992
- Digital Audio Home Recording Act required serial copy management systems
in digital audio recorders and imposed royalties on sale of digital audio
recording devices and media. Royalties are collected, invested, and distributed
among the owners of sound recording and musical compositions, certain performing
artists, and/or their representatives. Clarified legality of home taping
of analog and digital sound recordings for private noncommercial use.
- December 8, 1993
- North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act (NAFTA) extended
retroactive copyright protection to certain motion pictures first fixed
in Canada or Mexico between January 1, 1978, and March 1, 1989, and published
anywhere without a copyright notice; and/or to any work embodied in them;
made permanent the prohibition of sound recordings rental.
- December 17, 1993
- Copyright Royalty Tribunal Reform Act of 1993 eliminated the CRT and
replaced it with ad hoc Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panels administered
by the Librarian of Congress and the Copyright Office.
- December 8, 1994
- Uruguay Round Agreements Act restored copyright to certain foreign works
under protection in the source country but in the public domain in the United
States; repealed sunset of the Software Rental Amendments Act of 1990; and
created legal measures to prohibit the unauthorized fixation and trafficking
in sound recordings of live musical performances and music videos.
- November 16, 1997
- The No Electronic Theft Act defined “financial gain” in relation
to copyright infringement and set penalties for willfully infringing
a copyright either for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial
gain or by reproducing or distributing, including by electronic means phonorecords
of a certain value.
- October 27, 1998
- The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended the term of copyright
protection for most works to the life of the author plus 70 years after the
- October 28, 1998
- The Digital Millennium Copyright Act provided for the implementation of
the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty;
limited certain online infringement liability for Internet service providers;
created an exemption permitting a temporary reproduction of a computer program
made by activating a computer in the course of maintenance or repair; clarified
the policy role of the Copyright Office; and created a form of protection
for vessel hulls.
- November 2, 2002
- The Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act of 2002
provided for the use of
copyrighted works by accredited nonprofit educational institutions in distance
The Copyright Office is open to the public Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5
p.m., eastern time, except federal holidays.* The Copyright Office is located
in the Library of Congress, James Madison Memorial Building, 101 Independence
Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C., near the Capitol South Metro stop. The Public
Information Office is in room LM-401, and information specialists are available
to answer questions, provide circulars, and accept applications for registration.
Access for disabled individuals is at the front door on Independence Avenue,
*The Records Maintenance Unit (RMU) (Room B-14) public hours were changed
to 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. as of January 10, 2005.
Copyright Office website
The Copyright Office website
makes available all copyright registration forms, many in fill-in
format; all informational circulars; the Register’s testimony; announcements;
general copyright information; and links to related resources. The
website also provides a means of searching copyright registrations and recorded
documents from 1978 forward.
Public Information Office:
Information specialists are on duty to answer questions
by phone from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., eastern time, Monday-Friday, except
federal holidays. Recorded information is also available.
Forms and Publications
Hotline: (202) 707-9100
The Forms and Publications Hotline
is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Use this number to request
application forms for registration or informational circulars if you
know which forms or circulars you want. If you are unsure which form or circular
to order, please call the Public Information Office.
TTY: (202) 707-6737
Messages may be left on the TTY line 24 hours a day. Calls are returned
between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., eastern time, Monday-Friday, except
Subscribe to the Copyright Office free electronic
mailing list online on the Copyright Office website. Or, send
an email message to Listserv@loc.gov. In the body of the message, say: Subscribe
Library of Congress
101 Independence Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20559-6000
Revised January 2005