The following cross-post was written by Alison Hall, a writer-editor for the Office of Public Information and Education in the U.S. Copyright Office; it originally appeared on the Copyright: Creativity at Work blog.
Recently, Twilight series author Stephenie Meyer talked about her unpublished sequel to the original Twilight story, Forever Dawn. Shortly thereafter, the Library began receiving questions through the Ask a Librarian portal about how to view the unpublished manuscript registered with the Copyright Office (TXu001163060), which is only possible through an on-site visit in Washington, DC. Note: as of the publication date of this blog, the Library buildings are closed to the public due to the coronavirus.
So, what does that all mean? What is an unpublished copyright registration deposit, and why is it at the Library of Congress? When you register a work with the Copyright Office, you must determine if the work is published or unpublished, and you must submit a deposit copy or copies.
Under copyright law (Title 17, section 101), publication is the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending. Offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of people for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display also constitutes publication.
From January 1, 1978, forward, copyright law automatically protects works from the moment of creation, whether they are published or unpublished. Why does it matter if the work is published? Publication is an important concept for works created or first published after January 1, 1978, for a number of reasons, which are outlined in the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Practices, chapter 1900.
So if it’s not published, and copyright protects a work automatically, why do you need to register it? Unpublished doesn’t necessarily mean the work isn’t out in the world. And if the work is infringed upon, registering the work with the Office gives you rights in a court of law. The Office outlines the benefits of registration in Circular 1: Copyright Basics and in our Frequently Asked Questions on copyright.gov. You may be able to register your group of unpublished works together, as discussed in Circular 24: Group Registration of Unpublished Works and Circular 42: Copyright Registration of Photographs.
When you register your work—published or unpublished—with the Copyright Office, you need to provide a copy or copies of the work for examination. Chapter 1500 of the Compendium discusses copyright deposits in depth. The Copyright Office then maintains the deposit copy, or the Library of Congress may add the copy to its collections. If the Copyright Office maintains a deposit, it is available for inspection on-site only through the Records Research and Certification Section. The Office does not allow visitors to make copies of deposits without the copyright owner’s permission unless the party is in prospective or actual litigation. If the Library acquires the deposit, its availability often depends on its copyright status. While works that have entered the public domain might be available on the Library of Congress’s website, works in the collection that are still under copyright protection are only available to view in person.
How are unpublished copyright deposits used? Often, deposits are requested for litigation. But, they can also be used for research at the Library. Director, performer, and musical theater historian Ben West found registrations for published and unpublished scripts and scores in the copyright records while conducting research for Show Time! Trilogy, a three-part documentary about the history of American musical theater from the mid-1800s through 1999. He then was able to visit the Library’s Music Division to view the deposits that the Library had acquired.
If you have additional questions about registering or viewing unpublished works, contact the Public Information Office online or at (202) 707-3000 or 1-877-476-0778 (toll-free).