Strange Copyright Questions – Who/What Can Hold Copyright?


Copyright law may not come across as the most exhilarating topic (although searching for old copyright registrations is more exciting than you’d think), but many copyright cases make pretty bizarre headlines. Read about the infringement claim that J.K. Rowling stole the word “muggle” or the copyright dispute over the Mike Tyson-style tattoo in The Hangover Part II, and you’ll begin to unearth some outlandish questions raised by copyright cases.

One of the copyright issues I find most interesting is the basic question of who/what can hold copyright for works they’ve created.  Of course an adult human can hold copyright, but can children hold copyright?  How does copyright law apply to works created by animals, or even art created by artificial intelligence?

Can children hold copyright?

Short answer, according to Yes in the US.

Minors may claim copyright, and the Copyright Office issues registrations to minors, but state laws may regulate the business dealings involving copyrights owned by minors. For information on relevant state laws, consult an attorney.

Kristin Keller at describes potential copyright issues that may arise at schools “when schools have the potential to profit from student-produced work, when schools prohibit students from profiting from their own work, or when the rights of other students may be infringed upon when student work is reproduced.”

Can animals hold copyright?

Now we start to get into weirder territory about whether non-humans can hold copyright.  The most well-known case about animal copyright ownership is probably the monkey selfie case filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) back in 2015, where “Judge William H. Orrick dismissed the claim on the grounds that the Copyright Act does not authorize vesting copyright ownership in nonhumans.”  PETA appealed the ruling but later dropped the appeal after a settlement with the human photographer who had originally posted the monkey selfie.

The Copyright Office clarified in September 2017 that it will “not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants. Likewise, the Office cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings, although the Office
may register a work where the application or the deposit copy(ies) state that the work was inspired by a divine spirit.”

So in short, it seems like animals can’t hold copyrights in the US.  (Neither can ghosts.)

Can artificial intelligence hold copyright?

WIPO Magazine recently published a fascinating article by Andres Guadamuz, examining how copyright law may apply to artistic works created by artificial intelligence.  Guadamuz explains:

There are two ways in which copyright law can deal with works where human interaction is minimal or non-existent. It can either deny copyright protection for works that have been generated by a computer or it can attribute authorship of such works to the creator of the program.

It seems, at least for now (until the robot uprising occurs) that artificial intelligence can’t hold copyright.

So to sum it up:

What can currently hold copyright: Human adults and children

What can’t hold copyright: animals, plants, ghosts, robots


Evolution of Library Technology Told Through Patents: Card Catalogs and Microfiche

Sometimes with all of the new technologies to learn about in the library field (Big Data, AI, LibGuides, etc.) we can take for granted or relegate to dusty closets the equipment and older technologies that were used in libraries for decades. Patents can offer fascinating insights into common technologies, with drawings and descriptions illustrating how an object is assembled and citations to earlier patents showing the development of the technology.  Here are a few patents for traditional library equipment like card catalogs and microfiche, found through Google Patents, just to give a quick look at what goes into the creation of the tools librarians used once on a daily basis.

Card Catalog

US 3495731 A, Card catalog drawer.

Maybe we don’t use card catalogs on a daily basis anymore, but 30 years ago many libraries still used card catalogs for indexing and exploring their collections. Here are two patents that improve upon the design for card catalog drawers:

  • US 3495731 A, published February 17, 1970, describes “improved construction for a card catalog drawer particularly adapted for use in libraries where these drawers are subject to continuous manipulation, and are often removed from the cabinet to provide access to the catalog cards contained therein.”
  • US 5257859 A, published November 2, 1993, describes a drawer with “a smart mechanism to facilitate removing or discarding the catalogue cards by easily removing the metal rod passing through the hole located at the bottom of catalogue cards.”

If you want to learn more about the evolution of library card catalogs, read this post from The Library History Buff describing the history of card catalogs back to 1789.


US D211414 S, Microfiche viewer

Microfiche has been largely replaced by online digitization, but many academic libraries still have a microfiche viewer hidden somewhere in a dark corner to view old periodical  collections. Check out these three patents to learn how microfiche is produced and viewed:

  •  US 3690762 A, published September 12, 1972, describes a method for producing microfiche that “includes the steps of exposing a series of image areas on a film strip, leaving blank areas at predetermined locations on the film strip, processing the film strip to produce image transparencies thereon, arranging the film strip in the form of a helix with portions of each of the blank areas aligned, securing the blank areas to one another, cutting through the film strip in the blank areas to form the image areas into a matrix having the form of a parallelogram, and positioning the matrix to project selectively the images thereon for viewing purposes.” (Yes, patents can have very, very long sentences.)
  • US 3409361 A, published November 5, 1968, describes a microfiche positioning apparatus with a holder that can be “manually positioned within the projection apparatus to selectively scan one or several images and to reset the holder so that additional images may be reproduced without repositioning the microfiche.”
  • The design patent US D211414 S, published June 11, 1968, describes the ornamental design for a spiffy microfiche viewer.

You can find an entertaining and in-depth history of microfiche in the article Honey, I Shrunk the Page by Ernie Smith.

National Networks of Libraries: Biomedical, Patent/Trademark, and Government Publications

Sometimes a person can’t find the information they need online, so they may actually need to go to a local library for research assistance, print and digital resources, and training opportunities.  Unfortunately, many people in different parts of the country can’t afford to travel all the way to the National Library of Medicine (NLM) for biomedical information or to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) headquarters for intellectual property information.  That’s why many academic and public libraries across the US are part of specialized library networks for sharing different types of information:



Overview: The NNLM is funded and coordinated by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and the mission of the NNLM is to “advance the progress of medicine and improve public health by providing U.S. health professionals with equal access to biomedical information and improving individual’s access to information to enable them to make informed decisions about their health.”  Learn more through the About NNLM page.

Where they are located: The NNLM is made up of eight regions across the US, with a Regional Medical Library coordinating NNLM programs within each region.  Members of NNLM include “libraries, information centers, or other types of organizations,” and organizations can easily submit a form to request free membership.

What they offer:  NNLM offers many funding opportunities and free training opportunities ranging from consumer health to systematic review skills.  Membership within the network offers benefits like access to “free educational and printed materials” and “opportunities to request an NLM Traveling Exhibition to visit your library or organization.”


Overview: PTRCs are “a nationwide network of public, state and academic libraries that are designated by the USPTO to disseminate patent and trademark information and to support the diverse intellectual property needs of the public.” Learn more about PTRCs through their History and Background page.

Where they are located: PTRCs are located at public, academic, state, and special libraries across most states in the US.  To become a PTRC, institutions must meet a number of requirements defined by the USPTO, and the institutions will then receive ongoing training and assistance from the USPTO to help staff at the PTRC understand patent and trademark protections and and search tools.

What they offer: All PTRCs provide patrons with access to a core collection of US patent and trademark information, and they also offer “patent and trademark training as well as provide reference assistance and outreach to the public.”


Overview: The FDLP is administered by the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO), and “FDLP libraries collaborate on a local and national level to provide informed access to both historical and current Federal Government resources distributed through the FDLP.” Check the FDLP Basics page to learn more.

Where they are located: Federal depository libraries are located across the US in all 50 state, and institutions can be designated as Federal depository libraries by either congressional delegation (“each member of Congress may designate up to two qualified libraries”) or by-law designations.

What they offer: Federal depository libraries must have access to a basic core collection, and the libraries also have no-fee access to agency subscription databases.  There are a number of other collections and databases related to federal information that depository libraries may also offer access to. The FDLP offers many useful training resources for librarians and information professionals through FDLP Academy, such as webinars, training videos, events and conferences, a training assistance center, and more.  I suggest subscribing by email to the News and Events bulletins sent out by FDLP (you can learn about some great free webinars).

These are just the federally-funded library networks that I’m currently aware of, but I hope to learn about other networks for different types of specialized information in the coming years.

The (Eventual) Digitization of Pre-1978 Copyright Records

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.

Searching the online Copyright Catalog for Disney’s Moana.

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.”)
Digitized Catalog of Copyright Entries on the Internet Archives.

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.

Searching Databases with the 5 Senses: Beyond Searching with Words

The intellectual property search field really opened my eyes to how database searching isn’t just limited to keyword searches.  Sometimes, you need to go beyond searching only with words…you can search by drawing chemical structures to find patents mentioning similar compounds, or you can find similar designs or logos through a reverse image search.  If searching with visual elements is possible, then is there also technology that allows people to search through a database using other physical senses? Here are a few examples of tools allowing users to search by visual, auditory, tactile, taste, and scent criteria:

  • Sight – This is the easy one…reverse image searching is very common, especially using Google Images.  For Google, it’s as simple as uploading a photo or entering a URL for an image to find a list of matching or similar images.  The Pinterest Visual Search Tool has the added interesting feature of allowing you to zoom in and only search for a specific part of an image. Check out this video and presentation When image, colour and texture is content: the potential of visual search for an interesting case study of making 3 million designs from the

    UK Board of Trade Design Register visually searchable.


    Visual search tool on Pinterest.

  • Hearing – Technology to search by sound also seems to be relatively established, with apps like “Soundhound (previously Midomi), Doreso and others […] using a simple algorithm to match an acoustic fingerprint to a song in a library.”  Of course, Google also has its own sound search app.
  • Touch – For tactile search to exist, first we would need computer screens that allow users to “feel” specific textures and sensations.  Haptic engineering (according to Discover magazine) “focuses on applying tactile stimulation to our interactions with computers”, and this engineering field may lead to a future where we can search for and share textures and sensations with each other online.  I was only able to find one example of actual tactile search technology in a fascinating paper describing Twech: A Mobile Platform to Search and Share Visuo-tactile Experiences.
  • Taste/Smell – I wish Google Nose really existed, but unfortunately that was just a brilliant April Fool’s joke.  Searching by actual taste and smell doesn’t seem to be a realistic technology yet, but some databases do exist where users can search for the chemical components behind flavors and scents.  For example, BitterDB allows users to search “over 550 compounds that were reported to taste bitter to humans.”  You can also search for perfumes by “notes”, like citrus smells, flowers, woods, mosses, and more.

The technology is already available for image and sound-based searching, and we may soon be able to share and search tactile sensations over mobile devices.  I still look forward to the day when I can search for anything tasting like banana pancakes through Google…I’m sure that day is closer than we expect.

Top 3 Free Patent Search Databases – Latest Updates

It’s been about a year since I left the intellectual property field, and I know that patent search tools can change very quickly, with new updates usually added on a monthly or quarterly basis. I’m just starting to try to catch up on the latest patent search news, and one good place to start is by checking on the latest updates to three popular free patent search sites: EspacenetPATENTSCOPE, and Google Patents.  Here’s a quick overview on each site and a look at the latest new features:


Overview: Espacenet is a free patent database created by the European Patent Office (EPO), and allows users to search across bibliographic data (and in some cases, full text) for over 90 million patent documents from around the world.  Espacenet includes innovative features like image mosaics of patent drawings, machine translation of bibliographic data and full text (powered by EPO and Google), links to patent registers for the issuing patent office, and Global Dossier links (which includes patent file history papers for some patent documents from USPTO, EPO, JPO, KIPO, SIPO, WIPO, and CIPO).

Latest Updates: The latest news I was able to find for Espacenet was from November 2016, and the release notes describe the following updates:

  • Global Dossier service now includes access to patent file papers from the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) for applications published on or after October 1, 2015 and for Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) applications published on or after January 1, 1978.
  • Links to Global Dossier and links to the European Patent Register and available national registers have been separated.
  • Results lists can not be sorted by publication date.
  • The bibliographic and full-text coverage tables for Espacenet now use green coloring for rows to indicate changes in the data.
Global Dossier link now available for a Canadian patent application.


Overview: PATENTSCOPE is a free patent search site maintained by the World Intellectual Property Organization, and it allows users to search across 59 million patent documents, including 3.1 million PCT applications.  PATENTSCOPE includes unique features like the Cross-Lingual Expansion search form (which uses machine translation to automatically expand a search query), machine translation options of patent documents through WIPO Translate (or other machine translation services), and a chart of national phase information for granted PCT applications.

Latest Updates: According to PATENTSCOPE News Archive, recent updates to the database include:

  • Chemical structure search option for “PCT applications in English and German (from 1978), and the national collection of the U.S. (from 1979)”.  Users must first log in to use this feature.
  • Updates to WIPO Translate, which now uses “cutting-edge neural machine translation technology to render highly technical patent documents into a second language in a style and syntax that more closely mirrors common usage.”  The technology is initially being used for translation of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese patent documents into English.
  • Global Dossier content is now available on PATENTSCOPE for Japanese, Canadian, and EPO patent applications, under the “Documents” tab.  Global Dossier content for US, AU, KR, and CN documents will be available in the near future.
PATENTSCOPE chemical structure editor (image from press release).

Google Patents

Overview:  Google Patents searches across 17 patent authorities, and users also have the option to search across non-patent literature from Google Scholar.  Google Patents includes many unique features, like automatic grouping of results by Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) codes, CPC codes added to non-patent literature through machine classification, and an option to search for related prior art for a single patent document.

 Latest Updates: The Google Blog’s latest news on Google Patents is from August 2016 and describes the addition of 11 patent authorities to the patent coverage. The Google Patents homepage also mentions new features including “boolean search, graphs, thumbnail grids and downloads.”   At the bottom of search results, I noticed new graphs and charts identifying top filing dates, assignees, inventors, and CPC codes for top 1000 results, which seems to be a new feature since 2015.

Graphs and charts under Google Patents search results, identifying top filing dates, assignees, inventors, and CPC codes.