Copyright is an incredibly important form of intellectual property in the US that protects “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression”, ranging from artwork and novels to computer software and architecture. Copyright can also be an enormous pain to search, especially if you’re looking for pre-1978 copyright registrations. You very well may need to search for pre-1978 copyright registrations, since works originally copyrighted after 1922 and renewed before 1978 “have been automatically extended to last for a total term of 95 years” (learn more about copyright duration here). Basically, a work published in 1923 could still have an active copyright today.
If you’re searching for a post-1978 copyright registration, you can check the online Copyright Catalog. The search interface doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but you can at least search by keyword, title, claimant, organization, etc. and quickly browse through lists of results.
You don’t have nearly as much luck if you need to search pre-1978 registrations. Here are the options that I’m aware of:
- Search the copyright card catalog (which contains approximately 45 million cards covering 1870 through 1977) onsite in the Copyright Public Records Reading Room at the Library of Congress. If you don’t live near Washington DC, this may be tricky.
- Try browsing digitized versions of the Catalog of Copyright Entries (CCE). The University of Pennsylvania has an excellent guide on locating digitized historic registration records. The Internet Archive has a collection of digitized Catalogs of Copyright Entries from July 1891 through December 1977. You can keyword search within individual volumes thanks to OCR’ed text, but I couldn’t find a way to keyword search across the text of all volumes at once. (Note: The Copyright Office states “The CCE does not contain all registration updates and does not contain entries for recorded documents, including assignments, and should not be used as the only reference.”)
Thankfully, the US Copyright Office is in the midst of a massive digitization project that will eventually “provide web-access to the pre-1978 Copyright registration records.” The Project Goals page gives an update on the current status of the project:
In 2014-2015 the Copyright Office completed the digitization of pre-1978 records for preservation. The Office is now capturing pre-1978 digital content and is moving towards integrating the content and card images into the existing online record.
There’s no estimated completion date for the project, and knowing the speed at which government works, it may be a few years before we see the pre-1978 records integrated into the online Copyright Catalog. At least the project is moving along (although it does concern me that the Project Blog link no longer works!). Kudos to the Library of Congress and US Copyright Office for undertaking this enormous task, and hopefully the project will help librarians more easily identify copyright status of older works in the future.