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What is a Copyright Office?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 15, 2024
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A copyright office is a government office that administers copyrights and protections of copyrighted works. It is common to find a copyright office in a nation's capital, usually in the same district as other government offices and buildings. Such buildings may be attached to sizeable archives, used to store copyrighted material and information about copyrights. These archives can be a valuable research resource not just for people involved in copyrighting things, but also for historians.

When people wish to copyright something, they approach the copyright office to register it. Forms are filled out to demonstrate that the work is original, and the person attempting to copyright it is the creator and has the right to do so. Copyright offices handle electronic and physical works ranging from symphony compositions to e-books.

One important aspect of the work done in copyright offices around the world is maintenance of archives that can be used to trace chain of title. This information is used to determine who is currently in possession of the copyright for a given work. People need this information if they are filing suit for copyright infringement or if they are interested in adapting the work and need to contact the creator to get permission.

Copyright offices determine when works are "orphaned," meaning that, although they are still technically protected by copyright, no one has the right to enforce the copyright. Copyrights cover varying periods of time, depending on the nation and when something was registered. There may be situations in which a creator died and left no survivors, and there are proposals that this type of work should enter public domain because no one is available to exercise ownership.

The archives in copyright offices can be a very useful resource. Sometimes copies of creative works thought to be lost are found in copyright offices and historians uncover interesting information about noted creative works by delving through archives. This information can include revelations about work produced but never distributed, unexpected artistic collaborations, and misattributions of work. Historical research in the archives of a copyright office is also used to explore trends in creative work to learn more about various eras in a nation's history.

Visitors to a copyright office are usually only allowed access to the archives if they can demonstrate that they are conducting research. Some copyright offices maintain staff members who perform research for members of the public. These employees are usually intimately familiar with the archives, and can conduct very thorough and effective research.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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