Thanks to recent efforts of the US Copyright Office, we now have a complete digitization of summary copyright registration and renewal records back to the late 19th century. As Mike Burke and others at the Copyright Office have been reporting on their blog, Copyright Matters: Digitization and Public Access, the Copyright Office has now digitized nearly every volume of the Catalog of Copyright Entries, and its predecessor publication, the Catalogue of Title Entries of Books and Other Articles, to the start of that serial in 1891. Combined with the current online Copyright Catalog database, and some independent scans that fill in gaps in the Copyright Office set, records for every copyright registration and renewal still in force in the US can now be found online, free of charge.
This is a great benefit for people wanting to make better use of copyrighted works and the public domain. With the information now online, we can quickly verify copyright and public domain status for lots of works, and also get useful leads on current owners of copyrights, in ways that were not possible when the only copies of the Catalog were in closed reserve at certain federal depository libraries. Various people in the Copyright Office have been hoping for a while to get approval and funding for this digitization, and I’m very thankful for their persistence in seeing the work through.
Not all the work is done, though. Although the Catalog is now online, its records are not as easy to search, navigate through, and interpret as they could be. There’s no one-stop search box, for instance, that will reliably bring you to any copyright record with your query terms, regardless of date or type of record. And the Copyright Office also has more information about its copyright registrations– some of it on catalog cards, and more of it on original registration certificates like the one I found when researching the status of my mother’s book— that could be useful to people researching copyright status and looking for rightsholders.
For now, the Copyright Office is scanning the cards used to look up volumes of registration certificates, and that are also the basis of the Catalog of Copyright Entries printed volumes. From my (limited) experience with these cards, they don’t seem to add much information to what’s in the printed Catalog, but it’s easier to automatically create a searchable, structured database of copyright records from the cards, with their fairly regular typefaces and formats, than it would be to create one from the Catalog scans. According to their latest blog post, the Copyright Office is now creating digital images of the relevant cards, and hope to be done by the end of Fiscal Year 2014, or a little over 26 months from now. They’re also hoping to work with various partners– including “crowdsourcing” partnerships– to reliably convert the information on the cards into machine-readable form.
There are also lots of ways to make the existing online records more useful. On my own copyright records site, for instance, I’ve now made a comprehensive index to all the Catalog volumes, and created a table to make it easier to look up records in digitized Catalog volumes, based on the year and type of copyright registration. I’m still working on further refinements, and would be very happy to hear suggestions. (I’ve also been unable to find one 12-month stretch of records for copyrights from 1895 and 1896. Fortunately, all the copyrights from those years have long since expired, but I’d still be grateful to anyone who can help me fill this last gap.)
At the same time, I’ve been using the comprehensive record set to help me research and publicize copyright status for listings on The Online Books Page. For instance, if I’m listing public domain issues of a journal, magazine, or other serial, I’ll also look to see whether additional issues might also be in the public domain if their copyrights were not renewed. Then I’ll place a note about this on my cover page for the serial, if applicable.
As for the Copyright Office, I’m hoping that they can soon start digitizing their volumes of registration certificates, which contain a lot of useful additional information about copyrights and copyright holders, and which no one else has. Digitizing all of them wouldn’t be cheap– there are a lot of pages potentially to digitize, usually two for each registration. But perhaps they could start digitizing incrementally, either on a prioritized systematic basis (e.g., starting with the most recent volumes), or on a demand-based basis (e.g., digitizing when someone wants to obtain a copy of one of a volume’s certificates).
These are only a few of the things that could be done with the records now online, by people anywhere with the suitable motivation. I’d love to hear what others are doing or thinking of doing.