Copyright Subject Matter

Copyright Subject Matter in the United States

Copyright Law in the United States: Subject Matter

Under the 1976 act, copyright extends to all “works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” This broad definition includes literary works of all kinds, including fiction, nonfiction, prose, and poetry. It also includes visual arts, such as a painting or sculpture; audiovisual works, such as a television program or motion picture; musical compositions; dramatic works, such as a theater production or works of choreography and pantomime; and sound recordings (recordings of music, speech, or other sounds). Even computer programs and works of architecture are within the scope of the statute. However, works prepared by federal government employees, such as court opinions, acts of Congress, and other government documents, are not protected by the copyright law. Anyone may reproduce these works without obtaining permission.” (1)

Copyright Approach by Publishers

Most publishers and editorials approach copyright ownership with respect to their publications in a manner customary in the publishing industry. They own the copyright in all of their newspapers, journals and newsletters as compilations, and they generally own the copyright in their other print products. With respect to the specific articles in their publications, with some
exceptions, they own all rights, title and interest in original materials created by their full-time journalists, designers, photographers and editors. For outside contributors, publishers generally obtain all rights, title and interest in the work or the exclusive “first-time publication” and non-exclusive republication rights with respect to publication in their print and electronic business information products. They may license the content of many of their information products to several third-party information aggregators on a non-exclusive basis for
republication and dissemination on electronic databases marketed by the licensees. These are multi-year licenses which are subject to renewal.

Legal Materials

Copyright law in the U.S. is administered by the United States Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress. The Office’s Web site is a good central source for U.S. Copyright information.

Registering a Copyright / Recording a Transfer: In the U.S., a person who creates an original work automatically gets a copyright in the work on creation. The author may then choose to register the copyright with the Library of Congress Copyright Office to establish a record of ownership. Basically this entails filing a form (online or on paper) and paying a fee. The Copyright Office posts the necessary information

The Copyright Office posts information on how to record a transfer of copyright ownership.

Researching Registration Records: You can search for copyright registration records back to 1978 through the Copyright Office’s Public Copyright Catalog page. You can also use Lexis (COPYRIGHT;ALLCPY), which also searches legal documents sent to notify the Copyright Office of subsequent transfers of copyright ownership.

For older copyrights, you can search or browse scans of the Catalog of Copyright Entries included in Google Books (1923-1977). Alternatively, you can manually search the Catalog in print if an edition is available in a local library (check Worldcat) or online from the Internet Archive. In print, the Catalog is an eight volume set, published quarterly. Each volume corresponds to one type of work (movies, maps, sound recordings, etc.). The records are arranged by title and author, so it helps to know the registration date and type of work.

You might also want to check OCLC’s Copyright Evidence Registry to see if someone has commented on the copyright status of a work.

A number of private firms do specialized copyright research, including manual searches at the Library of Congress covering registrations back to 1870. Two big research firms are Government Liaison Services (800-642-6564) and the copyright department at Thomson CompuMark (800-692-8833 or 800-356-8630).

You can search to see if a copyright has been assigned to a new owner using the same Public Copyright Catalog you use to look up registrations. The database goes back to 1978. To look for transfers before then, you have to look in the Assignment and Related Documents Index, which covers 1870-1977.

Laws and Regulations: The U.S. Copyright Law is published as Title 17 of the United States Code and the related regulations are published in Title 37 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The full text of Title 17 is posted on the Copyright Office’s Copyright Law page. The Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices is the administrative manual of the Register of Copyrights concerning Title 17 of the United States Code and Chapter 37 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The current 3rd edition (2014) of the Compendium is available on the Copyright Office website.

The subscription-based Intellectual Property Law Collection on HeinOnline has pre-compiled legislative histories for U.S. copyright laws.

If you need to get a grip on practical copyright law, there are many copyright lawprimers and summaries available including the About Copyright section of the Library of Congress’ Copyright page, Copyright Basics by the University of Connecticut Libraries and the Overview by Nolo posted by the Stanford University Libraries’ Copyright and Fair Use Center.

Perhaps the trickiest and most important exception to copyright is “Fair Use” (17 U.S.C. 107). For guidance in applying Fair Use, see the Fair Use chapter of the Nolo overview posted by the Stanford University Libraries’ Copyright and Fair Use Center and/or the Fair Use Tools & Guidelines collected by the University of Connecticut Library. For case law interpreting fair use, see the Copyright Office’s Fair Use Index. Also useful: the Fair Use Checklists posted by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the University of Georgia and many other libraries, and the relatedThinking Through Fair Use tool by the University of Minnesota Libraries.

Treatises: The leading treatise on copyright law is Nimmer on Copyright: A Treatise on the Law of Literary, Musical and Artistic Property, and the Protection of Ideas(Lexis/Matthew Bender).

Works in the Public Domain: To determine whether a work has passed into the public domain under U.S. law, see How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work by the Copyright Office. For charts showing the various copyright terms, see Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States by Peter Hirtle and/or When U.S. Works Pass Into the Public Domain by Lolly Gasaway of the University of North Carolina. Note: To be safe, check the charts against current law before relying them.

When you actually search to see if a work is in the public domain, you will want to find both the original registration record and any renewal records, which could extend the life of the copyright. Renewal records filed from 1978 to the present are included in the Copyright Office’s Search Copyright Records database. If you need to search back further, Google has loaded renewal records in bulk into Google Books.

Thomson Compumark offers a product called “U.S. Copyright Duration Report” which is designed to tell you how long a copyright’s protected status lasts.

Other Information

Arbitration: The Copyright Office CARP and Licensing Information Web page ( posts the Rules and Regulations of the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panels and a lot of other information related to copyright arbitration. See also “Arbitration.”

Copyright Royalty Board: The Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) oversees “statutory licenses.” Statutory licenses “make it possible for qualified parties to use multiple copyrighted works without obtaining separate licenses from each copyright owner.” So, for example, the judges on the Board set the royalty rates to be paid by Internet radio stations for playing copyrighted sound recordings. The relevant laws, regulations, Orders and additional information are all available on the Board’s web site (

Circulars: The U.S. Copyright Office posts its current Copyright Information Circulars and Fact Sheets. You can get superseded Circulars by calling the Copyright Office.

For Law Librarians: A good source for copyright information is the AALL’s Copyright Resources page. To get many copyright licenses at once you can, for a hefty fee, sign on with the Copyright Clearance Center. You can also negotiate licenses individually, by working with individual publishers, or through companies such as iCopyright. See also the “Laws and Regulations” section, above.

Forms: U.S. Copyright Office Forms are posted at

License Agreements: You can get sample copyright license agreements — or look up agreements by a public company — using Lexis Securities Mosaic, GSI Online or another database that searches exhibits to SEC filings (see the “Filings” section of the Securities and Exchange Commission entry).

Other Internet Sites: The AALL provides useful information about Copyright Resources. Stanford University’s Copyright and Fair Use has links to important copyright websites, as well as important cases (sometimes including briefs and analysis) and legislation.

Permissions:, from the Copyright Clearance Center, lets you get permissions to use a wide range of copyrighted works.

Research Services: See “Researching Registration Records,” above.

Copyright in the U.S. Code

The United States Copyright Code appears in Title 17 of the United State Code.


Notes and References

See Also

  • Copyright
  • Copyright Notice
  • Copyright Registration
  • Rights of Copyright Owners
  • Licensing
  • Copyright Infringement
  • Fair Use
  • Brand Names
  • Docket Sheets
  • Foreign Laws
  • Patents
  • Securities and Exchange Commission
  • Trademarks

Copyright Subject Matter: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Copyright Subject Matter. This part provides references, in relation to Copyright Subject Matter, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Copyright Subject Matter by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Copyright Subject Matter and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Copyright Subject Matter or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Copyright Subject Matter and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Copyright Subject Matter. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Copyright Subject Matter should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Copyright Subject Matter when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

*This resource guide is updated frequently. However, if you notice something is wrong or not working, or any resources that should be added, please notify us in any of the "Leave a Comment" area.

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