By WENDI A. MALONEY
The U.S. Copyright Office aims to finish scanning 10 million copyright catalog cards by Sept. 30, 2011, in a project to digitize about 70 million paper copyright records from 1870 to 1977. When completed, the project will preserve the records and make them accessible in a searchable database already containing entries from 1978 to the present.
In January, the office started scanning catalog cards indexing copyright registrations from 1971 to 1977. “These cards are our most immediate priority at the moment,” says Mike Burke, Copyright Office manager of the digitization project. “We’re working backward, from 1977 to 1870, because a user survey showed higher interest in the more recent records, many of which relate to works still under copyright protection.”
Copyright records reflect the ownership of creative works. Congress enacted the first federal copyright law in 1790; “The Philadelphia Spelling Book” by John Barry was registered nine days later. Since then, nearly 34 million new works have been registered, and hundreds of thousands of documents related to copyright ownership have been recorded.
Copyrighted works range from the well-known to the obscure. They include novels, plays, motion pictures, sound recordings, sculpture, photographs, architectural designs, computer software and more.
Each year, thousands of people search copyright records. Some visit the Copyright Office to consult the paper records; others pay a fee to have office staff conduct a search. “We receive all manner of requests,” says Rosemary Kelly, head of the Office’s Records Research and Certification Section.
“We’ve researched the copyrights to typewriter-repair manuals, commemorative World’s Fair pieces, and historical baseball cards as well as ‘The Wizard of Oz’ films and Beatles songs.”
Many searches arise from projects seeking rights to use copyrighted material. A filmmaker, for example, might want to identify the owner of a musical work to negotiate rights to use it in a film. Other searches result from copyright infringement cases and estate settlements.
“Searches for all the copyrights owned by a deceased author or composer help family members establish the exact worth of an estate,” Kelly says. “Although this kind of search can be complicated, especially when rights have been transferred from one owner to another, digitization should make many searches easier and quicker.”
Bradley Daigle, director of digital curation at the University of Virginia, believes digitization may also facilitate historical and scholarly research. Daigle served as a consultant to the Copyright Office in planning the digitization project.
“Depending on how they’re indexed, the digitized records will be a gold mine for scholars, teachers, and others who want to document economic, cultural, literary and legal history from these materials,” he says.
Pre-1978 copyright records exist in several different formats, among them hand-written registers of copyrights dating from 1790; later application forms bound into books; documents recording assignments, transfers and terminations of copyrights; and a catalog containing more than 48 million cards in 25,723 drawers.
The card catalog holds original applications from 1898 to 1945, when application forms were catalog-card size, and it indexes applications filed from 1945 to 1978, available in bound books. In addition, the card catalog includes millions of entries for recorded documents. In fact, it is the most comprehensive and up-to-date index of pre-1978 copyright registrations and recorded documents. No exact duplicate exists, and many works recorded in it remain under copyright protection.
The digitization project started with the Catalog of Copyright Entries, a 660-volume index to copyright registrations published from 1891 through 1977. While fairly complete, the volumes do not include recorded documents. “A combination of concerns about preservation, cost, and public benefit informed the Office’s priorities for scanning,” Burke says.
Working through the Library’s Federal Library and Information Network Program, the Copyright Office entered into an agreement to have the nonprofit Internet Archive digitize the Catalog of Copyright Entries. Internet Archive was already digitizing Library materials at a scanning center in the Adams Building.
Scanning began in February 2010 with volumes for 1977. As of April 2011, 25 percent of the volumes had been scanned; the remainder should be completed within three years. Internet Archive is making catalog volumes available on its website and supplying the Copyright Office with digital copies.
From April to August 2010, through a contract managed by the Office of Strategic Initiatives (OSI), a contractor scanned 2.4 million catalog cards that reflect copyright assignments and transfers from 1870 to 1977. “These cards complement the Catalog of Copyright Entries, which do not include assignments and transfers,” Burke says.
Shortly after completion of these cards, a different contractor, working under a new OSI-managed contract, began scanning catalog cards that index copyright registrations from 1971 to 1977—the set is anticipated to be completed by the end of this fiscal year.
As cards are being scanned, another major phase of the project has begun: the effort to make the digitized records searchable. Copyright Office staff has started entering index terms from imaged records into a database. As of April 2011, staff had indexed about 73,000 records. This phase of the project will continue as scanning proceeds and is expected to be the most time-consuming aspect of digitization.
“When the project is finished, we will have a single database of copyright records linked to images of pre-1978 cards, applications, Catalog of Copyright Entries data, and recorded documents,” Burke says. “Eventually, the database could cover the period from 1790 to the present.”
To search post-1978 copyright records, go to www.copyright.gov.
Wendi A. Maloney is a writer-editor in the U.S. Copyright Office.