Compendium of Copyright Office Practices – 3rd Edition

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The U.S. Copyright Office delivered a Christmas present to the creative industries: The third edition of the Compendium of Copyright Office Practices. Unlike its predecessors, the third edition is not merely a set of instructions to the Copyright Office staff for administering the registration and recordation functions of the Register of Copyrights. The new version is intended to provide guidance to applicants for copyright, as well, setting forth what is and is not copyrightable and identifying who is entitled to claim copyright ownership.

Fabric and jewelry designers will find its lists of non-copyrightable subject matter and its examples of the distinction between copyrightable and non-copyrightable designs instructive. While the Compendium reflects significant judicial decisions, collected in a table of authorities, it also ventures into areas that have been considered unsettled.

This is particularly apparent in the section devoted to the copyright in websites. Insofar as the Register of Copyright is concerned, the format, layout and “look and feel” of a website are not copyrightable; but the content—text, photographs, audio and audio-visual works—are copyrightable. The website creator may have a copyright in the collection or compilation of these materials, consisting of their selection and arrangement, even if it has not created the contents. If the website’s terms of service require a user to convey “exclusive rights” in user generated content, uploading by the user of his or her content to the site will entitle the site to claim ownership of the copyright in the content. But the Copyright Office does not make registration easy. It requires the users who authored the content to be identified by name in the application for registration. If there are too many to name all, the application should list several authors and indicate the number of additional authors and the staff of the Copyright Office may ask for a more complete list to verify that the identification of authors of user-generated content has been maintained by the site owner. And any registration for the content on a website will pertain only to the particular version submitted with the application, so new matter added after registration will not be covered by the prior registration. Although it may be made available for display throughout the world, a website is considered an “unpublished work”, unless downloading or sharing of content is authorized.

The Compendium does not have the force of law and the Copyright Office has frankly stated that it has addressed unsettled areas in the hope that its reasoning will be considered persuasive should the issues be presented in future cases. But the Compendium does control how the Copyright Office will address applications for registration and a review of its provisions will assist applicants for copyright in avoiding common problems that can impede registration. It is readily available on the Copyright Office website, www.copyright.gov, and each chapter can be downloaded or accessed separately as a pdf.

Credit: Helene M. Freeman