The IT Law Wiki


The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to enact laws establishing a system of copyright. 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 of 1992 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 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 royalties.

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.


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 1976 Copyright Act 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 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[]

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 ’s cultural and historical heritage. Containing nearly 45 million individual cards, the Copyright Card Catalog housed in the United States comprises an index to copyright registrations in the from 1870 through 1977. The Copyright Card Catalog, together with post-1977 automated files, provides an index to copyright registrations in the United States from 1870 to the present.

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 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 the Executive Branch[]

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 matters. The Copyright Office works with other government agencies and international organizations to promote adequate and effective protection of 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 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) 707-3000. 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 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.

Supporting the Library of Congress by Obtaining and Making Available Deposits for the Library’s Collections[]

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 Copyright Office.

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 Copyright Communities[]

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.

The Copyright Office promotes improved copyright protection for 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 congressional delegations.