This summer, the Copyright Office reached a new milestone in our modernization efforts: surpassing one million card catalog records digitized with searchable metadata and added to the Office’s Copyright Public Records System (CPRS) pilot. As the number of card catalog entries in CPRS continues to grow, now is a good time to revisit the Office’s digitization efforts and explain how to read a registration application card.
Researchers from all over the country and the globe rely on the public record the Office maintains and manages. The Copyright Reading Room oversees approximately thirty-five million items, amounting to the most complete and accurate collection of copyright records of ownership in the world. From researching ownership to determine if a work is in the public domain or for licensing purposes, to identifying unpublished works by a particular artist, to investigating whether your ancestors registered any creative works during their lifetime, the Office maintains the record of creative endeavors in the United States.
What is CPRS?
CPRS is a pilot running in parallel to our legacy Copyright Public Catalog, and it will eventually become the official public record of copyright information in the United States.1 CPRS uses a more powerful search engine than the Public Catalog, provides easy filtering capabilities, and follows user-centered design principles that align with the Office’s expanding Enterprise Copyright System (ECS). Users can easily conduct searches in CPRS by keyword, name, and title and conduct advanced searches using detailed registration and recordation filters.
Users can visit CPRS and begin searching the Office’s records today!
Digitization of Card Catalog Records
The card catalog is the finding aid that enables users to find Office records from 1870 through 1977. In mid-December 2022, the Office started adding images and searchable metadata from the card catalog’s registration application cards to CPRS. Registration applications in catalog card size were first used in 1898 and were filed in the card catalog as the claimant entry. The available registration application cards date between 1909 and 1945. We continue to add thousands of digitized card records to CPRS every month, and the Office will soon start uploading cards dating back to 1898.
The inclusion of digitized card catalog records with searchable metadata is a huge step forward for the Office’s modernization journey. In total, the entire card catalog contains over forty million cards, covering the period from 18702 through 1977 and including author cards, title cards, claimant cards, and content cards.3 Searching “drawer by drawer” in the Virtual Card Catalog (VCC) or physically coming to the Madison Building in Washington, DC, to access the cards in person presents a barrier to access. Adding these card images with searchable metadata online in CPRS gives access to more creators, owners, and researchers worldwide.
Among the first one million card catalog records are registration application cards for classic American novels like Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, as well as the 1940 film adaption of The Grapes of Wrath from Twentieth Century Fox. You will also find the beloved children’s book Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, a 1940 registration for an unpublished version of White Christmas by Irving Berlin, Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a poster from the New York World’s Fair in 1939–1940, Zora Neale Huston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, and so many more.
What is a Registration Application Card?
The registration application card was designed for creators to use from 1898 through 1945 to provide the Office with essential data about their creative works, which you can read about in the next section. In practice, applicants filled out the card, and then works were indexed by card and recorded in a ledger of registrations by registration number. These numbers are now part of the Copyright Record Books collection, which is available onsite for researchers visiting the Library of Congress and is in the process of being digitized for online reference. Some application cards were more complex than others, but historically, skilled catalogers could cross-reference information within different records to help researchers find what they needed. One disadvantage to this process is that researchers need to know the trained procedures that catalogers use to find what they are looking for, making the research process very time-consuming.
Anatomy of a Registration Application Card
As the Office celebrates over one million registration application cards in CPRS and greater access to both historical and current copyright records, let’s take a closer look at an application card to get a better sense of the fields applicants may have had to fill out.
Please note: The Office used different versions of registration application cards from 1898 through 1945. Copyright law throughout this time required some of the same and some different information for registration than is required today. Additionally, the field arrangement on the application cards differed depending on the date of the registration, the type of work being registered, and the specific class or subclass required for the application.
Other Types of Card Catalog Records and Resources
The Office has developed a variety of similar resources to help researchers navigate the layouts and abbreviations on other types of card catalog records. While the Office is focused on adding registration application cards to CPRS, other cards, like author cards, title cards, claimant cards, and content cards, are still available and searchable in the VCC or in person. Users who come across these other cards now can refer to the Card Layouts in the Copyright Card Catalog handout for more information. Additionally, all users can turn to the Abbreviations Used in the Copyright Card Catalog handout for help deciphering some of the shortened text on the cards and the Description of Copyright Deposits by Classification handout for a comprehensive breakdown of the abbreviations used for different classifications of works. More resources are also available on the Copyright Public Records Portal webpage.
Researchers can make appointments to visit the Office to conduct research in person or request research support for a fee. Get more information, including the Copyright Reading Room’s hours and general information about conducting research at the Office, on our website.
The Office’s digitization work is an exciting component of our modernization project and supports two key pillars of our 2022–2026 Strategic Plan: Continuous Development and Copyright for All. Placing these card catalog records online makes them—and the copyright system—more accessible to as many people as possible. Check out CPRS today and take a look!
1The CPRS pilot is under development and is not the final version of the CPRS. This pilot does not replace or supersede the online Public Catalog or existing search practices the Copyright Office has established. Results obtained through the CPRS pilot should not be used for legal purposes. Note that there may be a delay of a day or more in the results displayed in this system as compared to the official online catalog.
2Copyright was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution in 1790, but the first registration for copyright made at the Library of Congress was not until 1870.
3For a brief history of copyright in the United States, check out the timeline on our website.