The LOC and Copyright

Federal Librarian (published by The American Library Association), 2005


The Library of Congress is not officially the USA’s “national library”.  The ALA recommended in 1896 that LOC be designated as the national library.  The National Advisory Committee on Libraries did the same in 1968, and The National Committee on Libraries and Information Science did so in 1975.  The White House, however, never acted on the recommendations.  However, according to the Encyclopedia of the Library of Congress (2004), the LOC is “the de facto national library of the United States”. What’s more, a passage on the LOC’s website refers to “our special status as the national library”.

Actually, it’s the LOC’s function as the national copyright depository that makes it our de facto national library.  According to the Encyclopedia’s discussion of LOC’s Copyright Office tells us, the owner of a copyright is required to deposit two copies of a published work in the Copyright Office. “The primary purpose of this mandatory deposit so to build and preserve a comprehensive collection of American publications as a record of the country’s national heritage, thus creating in effect a library of last resort for all works published domestically.”

 In fact, the central question is not whether the LOC is a national library, but whether it’s a legal deposit library.  Legal deposit libraries, such the British Library or the National Library of France, receive, by law, a copy of each book published in the country.   When I asked the LOC about the its status as such, The General Counsel's Office of the Copyright Office explained:

 In the United States, mandatory deposit is part of the copyright law.  We generally referred to legal deposit as mandatory deposit. The Library of Congress is the legal deposit in the United States, although the statutory underpinning of mandatory deposit is considerably different from legal deposit systems abroad. To my knowledge, the United States is the only country which has made mandatory deposit a part of its copyright law.

 Mandatory deposit applies to all works under copyright, unless exempted by regulation. It does not apply to works in the public domain.  However, since copyright applies to works automatically, the mere failure to apply a copyright notice to a work does not take the work out of mandatory deposit. In order to place an otherwise copyrightable work into the public domain, it is necessary to include a disclaimer of copyright on the work. This is uncommon, but it does occur.

 Most commercial works are registered in the Copyright Office due to the significant legal advantages such registration brings. In instances where registration has been made, the deposit for registration generally satisfies the mandatory deposit obligation. Copyright registration, however, is optional. Where registration has not been sought, mandatory deposit is still required.

 Exceptions, then, being “uncommon”, the LOC does function essentially as a legal deposit – or mandatory deposit – library.