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17A Copyright Office opinion is not decisive, final or conclusive

Where to Look in the Law

CFR: § 201.2(a) Information given by the Copyright Office.
(It states, in part, “The Copyright Office, however, does not undertake the making of comparisons of copyright deposits to determine similarity between works.”)

Copyright Office Publications for Laymen

Circular 1b

What the Courts Ruled


Bouvé, Register of Copyrights vs Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

C.A. for D.C. (7-14-1941) ¤ 122 F.2d 51, 50 USPQ 338, 74 App.D.C. 271

A registration to take out a single book copyright on twenty contributions to periodicals was submitted to the Copyright Office.  With it, page proofs of the articles were included to satisfy the deposit requirement.  The Register of Copyrights refused registration on the grounds that the twenty separate items should be registered separately (each upon payment of a separate fee), believing the collection to not qualify as a book.  The Register further objected that the page proofs did not qualify as the best edition of the material.  The proofs were the only edition published, thus the court decreed that the submission was the best edition.

At issue was Twentieth Century-Fox attempting to copyright the stories which were the unpublished bases of its movie In Old Chicago (1936).  The District Court ordered Bouvé to register the claim, but Bouvé sued to reverse, losing again.  The Government’s position about the Register of Copyrights is that “his powers are similar to those exercised by the Postmaster General in admitting articles into the mail…”  As for Bouvé’s insistence that the collection of pages proofs did not constitute a book: “But assuming that he has full power to classify deposited material, still, this gives him no power to refuse registration of a claim of copyright, which has been already secured by publication and notice.”

The decision asked why a work should be deprived of registration just because material submitted as a book seemed instead to be a serial; many books are republished as serials.  The decision looked at the absurdities such nitpicking could lead to: why not insist that each chapter of a typical book be copyrighted on a separate registration?  The Court noted that other writers and the world are helped in finding out the copyright status of a work when there is a single deposit and a single registration.


Jerome J. Gordon vs Guy Edmund Weir, et al

USDC E.D. Michigan SD (3-19-1953) ¤ 111 F.Supp. 117, 97 USPQ 387

Weir vs Gordon

6th Cir. (10-6-1954) ¤ 216 F.2d 508, 104 USPQ 4 affirmed

Edwin I. Gordon (plaintiff’s father) conceived of a dot-counting contest prior to February 21, 1934, the date it was first published in a newspaper.  He copyrighted it March 5, 1934.  Weir, operator of Weir Furniture, for a time contracted to use the contest, but then copyrighted his own variation.  This was ruled an infringement irrespective of the certificate obtained by Weir.  “Issuance of the copyright certificate to defendant on the plagiarized material does not relieve him from liability for such infringement.  The Copyright Office, by accepting his material as copyrightable, does not thereby determine his rights under copyright laws any more than a registrar of documents covering land titles, by accepting a deed for recording, determines title of the grantee therein to the land.  Defendant Weir applied for his copyright on material submitted by him as originating with him and created by him, whereas, in fact, the material was plagiarized.  To be copyrightable, a work must be original in that the author has created it by his own skill, labor, and judgment.”


Peter Bartok vs Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. and Benjamin Suchoff, as Trustee of the Estate of Bela Bartok

USCA 2nd Cir (9-26-1975) ¤ 523 F.2d 941, 187 USPQ 529

Copyright was secured on classical-music composer Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra on March 20, 1946, and that term expired March 1974.  Publisher Boosey & Hawkes and author’s son Peter Bartok each considered themselves to have the right to the renewal term.  “Both Boosey and Peter Bartok filed renewal applications.  The Register of Copyrights permitted the filing of both renewals expressly declining to adjudicate between them.”

The interpretation of the facts and of the law proved to be so complicated that after a lower court rendered one verdict, an appeals court found grounds to reverse it.  (A detailed summary is under renewal term: rights of widows, widowers and next-of-kin.)


Barry Kielselstein-Lord vs Accessories by Pearl, Inc.

USDC SDNY (5-7-1980) ¤ 489 F.Supp. 732

One company had registered its designs for its belt buckle but another company believed that no such design was eligible for copyright and thus could be infringed.  “The threshold question in determining if plaintiff has valid copyright in the Winchester Buckle and the Vaquero Buckle is whether these belts are copyrightable subject matter.  We begin with a presumption that these buckles are copyrightable, since the Copyright Office registered plaintiff’s claims to copyright.  Under both [1909 and 1976 Acts], registration by the Copyright Office is prima facie evidence of copyrightability, as well as of the information contained in the registration certificate.  This presumption is not conclusive, however; it merely shifts the burden of proof.  Despite this initial judicial deference to the expertise of the Copyright Office, its decisions are subject to review by the courts.  Bailie v. Fisher, 258 F.2d 425 (D.C.Cir.1958)”.


Aubrey Mayhew, dba Mayhew Music Co., et al vs Gusto Records, Inc.
Aubrey Mayhew, dba Mayhew Music Co., et al vs Stephen A. Hawkins, et al

USDC for Middle Dist. of Tenn. (4-4-1997) ¤ 960 F.Supp. 1302, CCH 27,751

Two songs from 1946 were judged to be in the public domain because the only renewal registrations were filed three days prior to the 27th anniversary.  “Plaintiffs take the position that the Copyright Office approved the application for renewal and, therefore, the musical compositions at issue were validly renewed.  Although the Court may consider the administrative actions of the Copyright Office, it is not bound by such actions in determining the law and applying it to the facts of a particular case.”  (A thorough summary of this case is under copyright notice omission, and another aspect is under term period calculation.)

Cases Summarized in Other Sections

King Features Syndicate, Inc. vs Charles L. Bouvé, Register of Copyrights (launch this) again saw the Register of Copyrights lose after it denied registration on the basis of the Register believing the deposit should be better.

Vacheron & Constantin-le Coultre Watches, Inc. vs Benrus Watch Company (launch this) involved a watch which the Register of Copyrights had refused to allow copyrighted as a “work of art”.

Scandia House Enterprise Inc. vs Dam Things Establishment (launch this) had the Copyright Office rejecting a company’s attempt at deposit because the notice carried the name of the country and not the copyright proprietor.  The company had committed another error as well.

The reader should consult all of the case on page 17C, “Copyright Office records are not conclusive”, which summarizes court decisions which decided that renewal registrations accepted by the Copyright Office were invalid.




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