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Copyright guide from US Copyright Office

It is 1,288 pages long.

Pages from 2014compendiumIt has very few graphics or illustrations.

Some of it is in fairly technical language.

On the downloadable version, the internal links don’t work but rather take you back to the online version.

Yet with all those problems, anyone who writes or takes photographs or in any way creates copyrightable materials must have a copy of it.

And even anyone who uses writings or photographs or other copyrightable materials would be well-advised to grab a copy as well.

It’s the third edition of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices,1 and you can read it online here or download it in a PDF file format here.

Released after public comment and input in December 2014, this third edition does in updated detail what its 1967-73 and 1984 predecessors were also designed to do:

The Compendium documents and explains the many technical requirements, regulations, and legal interpretations of the U.S. Copyright Office with a primary focus on the registration of copyright claims, documentation of copyright ownership, and recordation of copyright documents, including assignments and licenses. It describes the wide range of services that the Office provides for searching, accessing, and retrieving information located in its extensive collection of copyright records and the associated fees for these services. The Compendium provides guidance regarding the contents and scope of particular registrations and records. And it seeks to educate applicants about a number of common mistakes, such as providing incorrect, ambiguous, or insufficient information, or making overbroad claims of authorship.2

Among those common mistakes people make about copyright that are fully discussed in the new version are issues focusing on what can and can’t be copyrighted. Just as one example, you may recall the brouhaha some months ago about the photograph of a female Celebes crested macaque that was taken — by the monkey.

Seems the photographer had traveled to Indonesia, set up his equipment to take pictures automatically, and then watched as one of the macaques actually hit the button to take a picture. Intrigued by the sound, the macaque continued to press the button and took hundreds of pictures.3

Macaque selfies.

The photographer argued that that the images wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t set up the equipment, and that he did all the post-processing of the images to make them useable, so he was entitled to copyright protection. Wikimedia Commons took the position that any image created by an animal is in the public domain.4

At that time, in August 2014, because the Compendium was in the revision process, we weren’t sure what the Copyright Office might say about animal selfies.5 The prior version of the Compendium had said that “for a work to be copyrightable, it must owe its origin to a human being. Materials produced solely by nature, by plants, or by animals are not copyrightable.”6

The new Compendium has come down squarely on the side of Wikimedia and has made it even clearer, giving as a specific example of a work that can’t be copyrighted: “A photograph taken by a monkey.”7

Other sections of this massive guide talk about how much originality has to be shown to register a copyright in a work,8 who’s entitled to claim authorship or be named as the claimant for a copyright,9 copyright issues for websites,10 and more.

You can find a history of the Copyright Office and an explanation of the way it’s organized,11 and even a timeline of important historical dates in copyright law.12

Of course there are limits to what this document covers, two of them clearly stated by the Compendium itself:

• When the Compendium and the law conflict, the law governs. “The Compendium does not override any existing statute or regulation. The policies and practices set forth in the Compendium do not in themselves have the force and effect of law and are not binding upon the Register of Copyrights or U.S. Copyright Office staff. However, the Compendium does explain the legal rationale and determinations of the U.S. Copyright Office, where applicable, including circumstances where there is no controlling judicial authority.”13

• The Office may do something other than what the manual says. “The Compendium does not cover every principle of copyright law or detail every aspect of the Office’s administrative practices. The Office may, in exceptional circumstances, depart from its normal practices to ensure an outcome that is most appropriate.”14

But even with those limitations, it’s a document we should all have, and read through, and consult, when we’re trying to understand copyright issues under American law.

And, of course, as an official publication of the United States Government, the Compendium itself is not copyrighted.15


  1. U.S. Copyright Office, Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Copyright Office, 2014).
  2. Ibid., “What the Compendium Covers,” at 1-2.
  3. See generally Ashley Feinberg, “Wikimedia Won’t Take Down This Photo Because a Monkey Took It,” Gizmodo, posted 6 Aug 2014 ( : accessed 7 Aug 2014).
  4. Ibid.
  5. See Judy G. Russell, “link to blog post“>Copyright curiosities,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 7 Aug 2014( : accessed 28 Jan 2015).
  6. U.S. Copyright Office, Compendium II of Copyright Office Practices, §202.02(b); html version, reproduced from an OCR scan of the compendium ( : accessed 7 Aug 2014).
  7. U.S. Copyright Office, Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices §313.2 (3d ed. 2014). Note that this citation format is the one recommended by the Copyright Office itself. Ibid., “Citing to the Compendium,” at 1.
  8. Ibid., §308.
  9. Ibid., Chapter 400.
  10. Ibid., Chapter 1000.
  11. Ibid., §101.
  12. Ibid., §102.7.
  13. Ibid., “Standard of Deference for the Compendium,” at 2.
  14. Ibid., “What the Compendium Covers,” at 2.
  15. See 17 U.S.C. §105.
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