Your pastor-ancestor’s solemn church hymns or the drawing-room comedy of your distant cousin’s stage plays might still exist among the 120 million-plus books, periodicals, broadsides and other literary works at the Library of Congress.
Though copyright may conjure up thoughts of best sellers, even budding authors who were never formally published would routinely submit deposit copies of their work to secure copyright protection. Today, the records of the US Copyright Office catalog the only extant copies of countless obscure books, pamphlets, song sheets and other Americana dating back to 1790. The Copyright Card Catalog contains more than 41 million cards covering the period from 1870 to 1977 alone. Imagine how many descendants those authors have today!
Unlike patents, most copyright records aren’t available via the Internet. Getting them requires either a visit to the Library of Congress or the purchase of search services directly through the Copyright Office. Either way, if you’ve heard tales about a family author, or suspect that cousin Wilberforce once created a board game, your first step should be to visit the US Copyright Office Web site and click Search Copyright Records. You can search by author, title, registration number or keyword term, or do a combined search of all categories. The office’s Certification and Documents Section can provide you with copies of an original work.