Did Grandma write songs? – The personal side of Copyright records

A recent comment on the blog from Barbara tells of a musical work that she registered in the Copyright Office in the early 1970s and the disappointment that the record was not available online and might never be seen by her grandchildren. 

Last December, a post on the Library’s Performing Arts blog In the Muse told the story of a niece who found among the Copyright records 42 songs registered in the 1920s and 1930s by a great uncle, most still unpublished and hidden away for over 70 years (http://blogs.loc.gov/music/2011/12/pic-of-the-week-uncle-bennie-edition/). 

These are touching stories about creative accomplishments that bring out the personal side of Copyright records, records that have meaning not only to the creators but also to their families.  The pride of a grandmother showing her grandchildren the records of songs that she wrote and the thrill for a niece finding records of a great uncle’s long lost songs stoke the fire of a passion that I and my colleagues share to make these records available online sooner rather than later.

Beyond being a source of family pride, the records also show where copyright may still persist for specific works. The amendment of the Copyright Law in 1992 made renewal automatic for works still in their first term of protection and made renewal registration optional for works originally copyrighted between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977.  In the case of the song registered in the early 1970s, the copyright very likely has not expired and would persist under the present law until at least 2065.  For the songs registered in the 20s and 30s, a search of the records for renewals would tell about their status.  So the song, book, or other work that has lain silent perhaps for decades could be the subject for the next hit tune or blockbuster motion picture, carrying with it all the benefits that can accrue to a copyright owner.

Copyright records reflect ownership of intellectual property that can have significant commercial value. They are a treasure trove for those doing research on the cultural development of our great nation.  But they also tell the personal stories of creative accomplishments of everyday folks that can be the inspiration for us and others in the future.

So Barbara, that song of so many years ago is still under Copyright protection and your grandchildren could one day inherit those rights.  And we remain committed to the task of making the records available and easily searchable online.  In the meantime, you might want to look in the online Catalog of Copyright Entries that we recently had scanned and that are now available at http://www.archive.org/details/copyrightrecords/ .   The 489 volumes that have been scanned so far contain about 12.6 million registrations dating from 1924 to 1977 in all classes including music, motion pictures, works of art, prints, photos, pamphlets, periodicals, maps, books and renewal registrations.  The CCE volumes are by year, cataloging period, and class of material.  Word searching of the online volumes is available and there are indexes included in each volume or in an accompanying volume.


  1. William Bernard Kennedy
    March 9, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    This was interesting. Thanks.

    William B. Kennedy

  2. Donna Lisa Hunte
    March 14, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    I copyrighted musical works starting 1972 and I want to search for the works. How can I do this on line?

  3. Mike Burke
    March 14, 2012 at 6:11 pm


    To find the registrations online go to the Internet Archive website at http://www.archive.org/details/copyrightrecords/ and at the end of the welcome paragraph click on “All items (most recently added first)”. This will display the list of volumes of the Catalog of Copyright Entries.

    Generally speaking, the CCEs were published yearly by class of work. In the case of large classes such as music they were published semiannually. To use these volumes to find a registration you need to know the type of work such as music and approximately when it was published or registered.

    So the first step is to sort the list of volumes by date. A box to the right on the display is labeled “Sort results by:”. Click on the word “Date” and that will put the volumes in year order. If you scroll down the volume titles you will see that they contain the year and the class. Because music is such a large class it was published semiannually and sometimes in two volumes, one containing the entries in registration number sequence and the other, with the word “Index” in the title, containing the name and title index with pointers to the pages in the companion volume. For example, if you look in the 1975 Music Index for July through December, on page 441 you will find 2 entries under your name. They point to page 1409 in the companion volume titled the same but without the word “Index” and there you will find the two catalog entries.

    Mike Burke

  4. Judy Riffel
    April 2, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    I searched the Catalog for a song that was recorded in 1936, but did not find it. It was about an event that occurred in 1934, so could not have been written before that date. I searched up to 1938 with no luck. How can I be certain that it was not copyrighted? I would like to publish the lyrics in a family book.

  5. Mike Burke
    April 4, 2013 at 9:47 am


    Thank you for your comment. The complete absence of any information about a work in the Copyright Office records does not mean that the work is unprotected. For example, before 1978, unpublished works were entitled to protection under common law without the need of registration. Or a work may have been registered under a different title or as part of a larger work. The following circulars, available on the Copyright Office website, provide more details:

    Circular 1B – Limitations on the Information Furnished by the Copyright Office

    Circular 6 – Obtaining Access to and Copies of Copyright Office Records and Deposits

    Circular 22 – How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work

    Circular 23 – The Copyright Card Catalog and the Online Files of the Copyright Office

    Mike Burke

  6. Jaber
    January 28, 2015 at 11:34 am

    Is streaming music online violate copyrights? How do websites like Spotify, listenbit.com get around this?