Copyright office should free the database of copyrights!

Carl Malamud sez, "In an act of unintended irony, the U.S. Copyright Office sells the database of copyrights for $86,625. The Library of Congress even asserts that the database is copyrighted 'outside the United States', which would of course make it hard for somebody to put the database on an anonymous FTP server for anybody to get. And, why would we restrict access to a database that was specifically called out in the U.S. Constitution?

"In a letter to Marybeth Peters, the Register of Copyright, librarians from universities such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Pennsylvania, and the Internet Archive all ask the Copyright Office to free this data."

The copyright catalog of monographs, documents, and serials is not a product, it is fuel that makes the copyright system work. Anybody should be able to download the entire database to their desktop, write a better search application, or use this public domain information to research copyright questions.

A price tag of $86,625 places this database beyond the reach of university libraries, small businesses that wish to provide a better copyright search service, and academics or citizens wishing to analyze the copyright registration process. Additionally, setting copyright restrictions on the copyright database, a "work of the United States Government," runs directly counter to the well-established principle that such works shall be in the public domain.

Link (Thanks, Carl!)


  1. Perhaps this is like the statutes here in Florida? The information is owned by the public, however one company copyrighted the formatting of their electronic version. I believe that’s been resolved now in favor of us, the citizens, since you can search statutes online now – but it could be a similar thing. The case to make is that the public of the US has already bought and paid for that database, through our tax-supported creation of it.

  2. I have used this database free of charge, I don’t know what the issue is being described. Why does it sound like someone wanting to drive a US Military tank that their tax dollars already paid for? That’s not a valid argument.

  3. I am commenting anoymously because I cannot seem to log in and post with my newly-created MT account.

    Anyhow, U.S. law does forbid the copyright of any work produced by the U.S. government.

    “Section 105. Subject matter of copyright: United States Government works

    “Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government, but the United States Government is not precluded from receiving and holding copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise.”

    The MARC (MAchine-Readable Cataloging) distribution of LoC’s catalog info is not subject to copyright. It appears to me that the statement on the LoC’s MARC does not assert copyright over that content within the U.S.

    “Records in the MARC Distribution Services originating with the Library of Congress are copyrighted by the Library of Congress for use outside the United States.”

    They only claim copyright for use outside the U.S.

    However, LoC does run roughshod over the law, not by prohibiting the copying of its MARC catalogue, but by embargoing its distribution with a very heavy price tag. It certainly presents the upraised middle finger to the free flow of information envisioned by the founders of the United States. (Although I don’t see where the Constitution calls for the creation of this database.)

  4. #2:
    “The Copyright Office maintains a web-based application that allows the public to search for individual records. However, no bulk access is available: one cannot download the entire database.” (

    I don’t understand the logic here. Are individual records a loss-leader, a way of advertising the real product (the entire database)? WTF.

    #3: “LoC does run roughshod over the law…by embargoing its distribution with a very heavy price tag.”

    Right. The Founding Fathers never intended that the rights and privileges of citizens be accessible only to those who can afford it. Gradually, capitalism is replacing democracy as our form of government (despite what they tell you, they are not identical), and this is just one example.

    Even from a purely economic point of view, limiting access to this information inhibits innovation, I would think.

    But I’m wondering what the laws cited by #3 say about selling the information, as opposed to copyrighting it? I assume there’s a distinction….

  5. Nick (#5):

    Capitalism isn’t really a form of government, I think you’re thinking of a kind of fascism.

    Last time I checked, Wikipedia had a pretty good writeup of the different flavors of fascism.

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