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Third edition of USA copyright office compendium – Identifying the work covered by a registration

The U.S. Copyright Office does not issue copyrights, but instead simply registers claims to copyright. The copyright in a work of authorship created or first published after January 1, 1978 is protected from the moment it is created, provided that the work is original and is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

In other words (final version), the copyright in a work of original authorship exists regardless of whether the work has been submitted for registration or whether the Office has issued a certificate of registration for that work. A copyright “claim” is an “assertion of copyright ownership in … the work.” Thus, when an applicant files an application to register a work of authorship, the applicant is asserting a claim of ownership in the copyright in that work.

A copyright claim is a claim in the original authorship that an author or authors contributed to the work. The applicant – not the U.S. Copyright Office – must identify the original authorship that the applicant intends to register. A work may be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, provided that it falls within one or more of the categories of authorship set forth under Section 102(a) of the Copyright Act. A copyright registration covers the copyrightable authorship that the author contributed to the work, but it does not cover the medium in which the work has been fixed.

The Office may examine the constituent elements or individual components of a work to determine if the work contains a sufficient amount of creative expression to warrant registration. But as a general rule, the Office will not issue separate registrations for the constituent elements or individual components of a work of authorship. Likewise, the Office will not issue separate registrations to each author who contributed copyrightable expression to a work of authorship (except as contributions to a collective work or derivative works).

The U.S. Copyright Office only examines the authorship that is explicitly claimed in the application. It does not examine any authorship that is not claimed in the application, and therefore, no prima facie presumption should apply to unclaimed authorship that appears in the work. A copyrightable work may contain one or more types of authorship, but registration only covers the authorship that is owned by the claimant or co-claimants who are named in the application. In some cases, the applicant may intend and may be entitled to register all of the authorship that appears in the work, while in other cases the applicant may intend or may be entitled to register only certain aspects of the work.