Third edition of USA copyright office compendium – Literary Work

The Copyright Act defines a literary work as “works, other than audiovisual works, expressed in words, numbers, or other verbal or numerical symbols or indicia, regardless of the nature of the material objects, such as books, periodicals, manuscripts, phonorecords, film, tapes, disks, or cards, in which they are embodied.”

A literary work is a nondramatic work that explains, describes, or narrates a particular subject, theme, or idea through the use of narrative, descriptive, or explanatory text, rather than dialog or dramatic action. Generally, nondramatic literary works are intended to be read; they are not intended to be performed before an audience.

Textual works that are intended to be performed before an audience and textual works that are intended to be used in a sound recording, motion picture, or other audiovisual work are considered works of the performing arts, rather than nondramatic literary works.

A literary work may be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office if it has been “fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which it can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated.” A literary work is considered “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” when it has been embodied “in a copy or phonorecord, by or under the authority of the author” that “is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit the work to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than a transitory duration.”

There are countless ways that a literary work may be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Most literary works are fixed by their very nature, such as a poem written on paper, a short story saved in a computer file, an article printed in a periodical, or a novel embodied in an audio recording. However, some copies or phonorecords may not be sufficiently permanent or stable to warrant registration. The registration specialist may communicate with the applicant or may refuse registration if the work is fixed in a medium that only exists for a transitory period of time, a medium that is constantly changing, or a medium that does not allow the specific words, numbers, or other verbal or numerical symbols or indicia that constitute the literary work to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated in a consistent and uniform manner.

A literary work may be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office if it contains a certain minimum amount of literary expression that originated with the author of that work. When a registration specialist examines a literary work, he or she determines whether the work contains a sufficient amount of original authorship “expressed in words, numbers, or other verbal or numerical symbols or indicia.” In making this determination, specialists apply the legal standards set forth in the Copyright Act, the Office’s regulations, the Compendium (draft), and the relevant case-law. However, specialists do not look for any particular style of literary authorship, and they do not judge the “literary merit or qualitative value” of the work.