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Now that you have isolated the information necessary for searching, you can begin examining the records at the Copyright Office and at the Library of Congress. Each of these databases has valuable information about public domain status and copyright ownership:
- Think of the Copyright Office as the source for copyright records. Search this database if you want specific information about copyright ownership, publication, transfers, and derivative works.
- Consider the Library of Congress as a 200-year-old library catalog. Search the catalogs if you want general information about a work such as the author, date of publication, subject matter, and publisher.
One common search strategy is to use Library of Congress files to identify an author, title, or publisher and then use that information to search the Copyright Office records online, as described below. If you are uncomfortable searching online, consider hiring the Copyright Office to perform the search on your behalf.
Defining Your Search
Your search of Copyright Office records will vary depending on your goal. Most likely, you have one of two goals: you want to find the current owner of a copyright or you want to know whether the work has fallen into the public domain. Methods for achieving each goal are described below.
When trying to determine the owner of copyright, review:
- certificates of registration, and
- assignments or other transfer documents.
Both of these documents are issued by and recorded with the Copyright Office. The registration will indicate who initially acquired ownership. The assignment will indicate if the registration has been transferred to another party.
The certificate of registration is issued by the Copyright Office and is the basic copyright document establishing date of publication, author, source of underlying material, contact person, and initial owner of copyright. The owner’s name is listed in the space in Section 4 entitled “Copyright Claimant.” If the owner is a different person than the author, the method of acquiring ownership (for example, “by written contract”) is indicated in the space in Section 4 entitled “Transfer.”
Assignments are transfers of copyright ownership. For example, an author may transfer rights to a publisher by signing an assignment of copyright, often included as part of a publishing agreement. Filing an assignment with the Copyright Office is not mandatory, but many copyright owners do so. When searching online at the Copyright Office, the person acquiring rights (the assignee) is usually listed as PARTY2 or PTY2 and the person transferring rights (the assignor) is usually listed as PARTY1 or PTY1.
Public Domain Searching
When researching whether a work is in the public domain, review:
- copyright registrations or other records containing the date of first publication, and
- renewal notices.
Both registrations and renewal notices are issued by and recorded with the Copyright Office. The registration is the initial statement of copyright information about a work and indicates the author, date of registration, copyright claimant (at the time of filing the registration), and date of first publication. A renewal must be filed in order to extend the length of protection for works published or registered before 1964. Although a renewal is no longer required for works published or registered after 1963, many copyright owners still file it.
Works published in the years 1923 through 1963 receive 95 years of protection if they were renewed during their 28th year. If not, they are in the public domain. Works published in the years 1964 through 1977 receive 95 years of protection. Works created after 1977 and all unpublished works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.
You may be able to determine if a work was published before 1923 (and is in the public domain) by examining the date in the work’s copyright notice. For example, James Joyce’s Dubliners is in the public domain because the Library of Congress database indicated that Dubliners was first published before 1923.
Note that copyright notice dates included in a book are not always accurate, because many public domain works are often republished with new dates in their copyright notices. For example, current editions of James Joyce’s Dubliners have copyright notices with dates after 1980. These “new” dates reflect the fact that the work contains some new material such as a preface, notes, or previously unpublished material. Only this new material is protected under the copyright claim. The public domain part of the work remains in the public domain.
Works published in the United States after 1922 and before 1964 are also in the public domain if the owner failed to file a renewal during the 28th year after first publication. Unlike copyright registrations or assignments, renewal notices for works published before 1964 had to be filed with the Copyright Office. If a work published after 1922 and before 1964 was not renewed, it fell into the public domain. According to Copyright Office surveys, the great majority of pre-1964 works were never renewed and, therefore, are in the public domain. Unfortunately, the Copyright Office does not maintain lists of public domain materials. You must search Copyright Office records to determine whether a renewal was filed on time for each work.
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Searching Copyright Office Records
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Once you have all the available information about your work and know what you’re searching for, you need to choose the search method that best suits your purposes. You can either hire a search firm or work directly with the Copyright Office, which will do your search for a fee. Another option is searching the Copyright Office online, discussed in the next section.
Hire a Private Search Company
For a fee, you can hire a private company to search Copyright Office records for you. These companies provide additional services such as tracing the copyright history of a fictional character or locating similarly titled works. These companies may be able to determine if a work is in the public domain or whether you can obtain the rights to use the work. The advantage of using these companies is their speed and thoroughness. Search companies compile comprehensive reports using Copyright Office and other database records and can deliver the materials within two to ten days. The disadvantage is the cost, ranging from $75 to $300 per search. The largest and best known copyright search company is Thomson CompuMark (trademarks.thomsonreuter.com).
Pay the Copyright Office to Perform the Search
Upon request, the Copyright Office staff will search its records at the statutory rate of $165 for each hour or fraction of an hour consumed. (There is a two-hour minimum.) An online search request form (see Figure 1, above) is available from the Copyright Office website (www.copyright.gov/forms/search_estimate.html). The Copyright Office will respond with an estimate within two to five days.
Although the cost of a Copyright Office search is lower than a private search company, the disadvantage is that it may take longer to receive a response. The Copyright Office will conduct an expedited search if you pay a higher fee ($300 per hour). For more information, see Copyright Circular 22. Also, note that the search fee does not include the cost of additional certificates or photocopies of deposits or other Copyright Office records. For information concerning these services, request Copyright Office Circular 6. (See Chapter 16 for information on how to obtain Copyright Office publications.)
All requests for copies of Copyright Office records should be submitted to: Certifications and Documents Section, LM-402, Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20559; 202-707-6787. It is also possible to go to the office and request records in person (see “Searching in Person,” just below).
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Searching Copyright Office Records Online
Searching the online Copyright Office records is free and easy. You can search through copyright files by visiting the Copyright Office at www.copyright.gov/records (see Figure 2, below). All copyright information is located in the Public Catalog (click “Search Public Catalog”) which contains information about works registered since January 1978. Included are published and unpublished text works, maps, motion pictures, music, sound recordings, works of the performing and visual arts, graphic artworks, and games. Also included are renewals of previous registrations.
Once you access the Post-1978 Records (see Figure 3), you can search either by Basic Search or by using the Boolean “Other Search Options” feature (see Figure 4). You can search by author, claimant, title, or registration number. The search files are updated weekly. Note that renewal information is only available for works published after 1949.
We tested the Basic Search feature by typing in the title of the book, Franny and Zooey, and found the resulting records (see Figure 5). Clicking on the second record (Figure 6), we learn that the owner of copyright is the late J.D. Salinger, and that the work, although first published in 1961, has been renewed (indicated by the letters “RE” by the registration number). The original registration number is A591015. Based on this information we can conclude that this work is not in the public domain because the owner filed a timely renewal of copyright after 28 years. (For more information on renewal requirements, see Chapter 8.)
Searching Library of Congress Records
In addition to Copyright Office records, there is another catalog of helpful information at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world and has been collecting and cataloging materials for over 200 years. However, contrary to popular belief, the Library of Congress does not contain copies of every work ever published in the United States. The Library of Congress Online Catalog (http://catalog.loc.gov) includes data for books, serials (magazines and periodicals), music and sound recordings, maps, visual materials (such as photos and graphics), computer files from 1975, and an index of names and subjects. It also includes an incomplete, unedited listing of books cataloged between 1898 and 1975.
Because of the ease of searching and the vast catalog of materials, use the LOC Catalog for basic research, such as locating the publisher or owner of a work and researching public domain information. Unlike Copyright Office files, the LOC Catalog is searchable by subject matter. Or, you can search by ISBN, ISSN, or LCCN (Library of Congress Catalog Number). You can even limit or define your search by language. For example, you can search for books that are not in English. You may be able to use Library of Congress files to identify an author, title, or publisher and then use that information to search the Copyright Office records.