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The Register: The Historical and Unique Title for American Copyright Leadership

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The following is a guest blog post by Marilyn Creswell, Librarian-in-Residence at the U.S. Copyright Office.

In most conversations, a register is usually a list, and a registrar is usually a person who keeps lists. The U.S. Copyright Office is a rare example of a Register being the person who keeps a register.1 The origin of the term register as a person either may be a variant of registrar or borrow from the identical French term register.

As early as the 1500s, England had people serving as registers. They were in the same class of leaders as judges, advocates, scribes, and proctors. Persia had a Register’s Office of the Chancery in the 1600s. Scotland, home of the oldest national public land register, had a Deputy Register in the 1800s. In one instance, a nineteenth-century traveler in India speaks about the impending appointment of a Register, which she finds a peculiar way to spell Registrar. Perhaps the closest contemporary parallel to our Register of Copyrights can be found in England, where British copyrights were recorded into the Register-Book kept by the Company of Stationers until 1924.

Registers were also established early in American history. In its first session, Congress approved the position of Register of the Treasury. Beginning in 1800, Congress established registers within local land offices under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior. The United States Mint had a Register of Deposits established by 1882. These positions were renamed when their organizational structures shifted in the twentieth century. During the Reconstruction Era, Congress established boards of registration for voting. Contemporary documents show the keepers of these voting records to be called registers.

The Copyright Act of 1870 centralized copyright operations under the Librarian of Congress, whose title was unchanged. During this period, the Librarian was referred to as the “chief officer in the copyright department” and the “register of copyrights [. . .] in charge of all acts touching copyrights, under the supervision of the Joint Committee on the Library.” One of the Librarian’s duties was to provide receipts for copyright fees to the Treasury, averaging over $100 per day. The Treasury lamented the ongoing delays and suggested the solution was to “separate the duties of register of copyrights from those of Librarian of Congress [. . . to] promote the interests of the public in securing prompt action in copyright matters, and would at the same time protect the interests of the Government in securing prompt returns of moneys received from copyright fees.”

Black and White photo of an older man sitting in a chair holding a book. Caption reads, 'Ainsworth Rand Spofford, full portrait, seated, ca.1900.'
Ainsworth Rand Spofford, full portrait, seated, ca.1900, Photo from Brady-Handy negative, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

On December 3, 1895, Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford submitted a special report to Congress pleading to bifurcate the functions of Register of Copyrights from those of the Librarian of Congress. His report emphasized that the “interest of the Library service and of Congress would be promoted by an immediate provision of such an officer.” Within a week, there were bills to support it—and the term register—in both chambers of the legislature (S. 425 and H.R. 1243). Two and a half months later, the Senate bill was amended; the title was kept, but the salary was lowered. That same month, another bill (H.R. 5976) was introduced that would establish a “commissioner of copyrights.” None of these bills went to a vote, but the need for a distinct copyright department was addressed in the appropriations bills drafted at the end of the year. Early drafts of the bills call for an assistant to help with copyright work, but thanks to edits proposed in January 1897, the title of register made it into the Act’s final text. The position Register of Copyrights was officially passed into law on February 19, 1897.

Bar chart showing top copyright titles around the world. Director is at 93 instances, Register at 28, Head at 25, Secretary at 9 and CEO at 7.
Number of instances of copyright titles around the world. The top five titles are displayed.

Despite the exciting establishment of the Register of Copyrights in the United States, globally, the title of Register was already in decline. Today, the Register of Copyrights is the only leader of a copyright office holding that title. Registrar is the second-most common title, with only a third as many occurrences as Director. Heads and Secretaries are also common leaders.2

Now that you know how this title came to be, let’s celebrate its rich history and the great work our fourteen Registers have accomplished.



1 The full title for the head of the Copyright Office is the Register of Copyrights and Director of the U.S. Copyright Office, which reflects the duties set forth in section 701 of Title 17. 17 U.S.C. § 701 (“All administrative functions and duties under this title, except as otherwise specified, are the responsibility of the Register of Copyrights as director of the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress”).

2 Based on data from World Intellectual Property Organization. When there was a leader listed for the copyright department, that title was used. If there was only a broader IP officer, their title was listed instead. The English versions of titles on the WIPO website were used and, at times, simplified; for example, Burkina Faso’s Directeur general/Director General was categorized as “Director.” When a title included multiple roles, both were counted separately. When there was no English title given, the closest cognate was used.



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