Help me understand this copyright information (long)

As I’ve said in several threads already I plan on doing some covers of old tracks from the 1910-1930’s. Many of these are in the public domain, some are not and some might be.

From Stanford Copyright and Fair Use webpage we learn this:

“If you plan on using a work that was published after 1922, but before 1964, you should research the records of the Copyright Office to find if a renewal was filed.”

With that in mind I’ve been looking up songs at the Library of Congress website but am a bit confused on the results. SO… perhaps someone with understanding of this can help me. (this might take some playing along at home with results)

Let’s use a song called Crazy Words, Crazy Tune from 1926 - music written by Milton Ager; lyrics by Jack Yellen.

If you go to the Library of Congress Website you can search entries. The direct URL is

I first did a search on “Crazy Words” and got several choices, one of which was the complete song title that had the following three entries.

The first two items appear to be copyrights of compilation records. More directly “compilation of sounds and compilation of photos” as stated in the Warner Brothers application.

Considering the Warner Brothers copyright was in 1979 (53 years after Crazy Words, Crazy Tune was written) I assume this means ONLY the compilation recordings are subject to copyright and not the songs themselves. Meaning I can not make a copy of the compilation and sell it, but I could re-record the song and sell that.

The last entry, Item 3, appears to be a copyright of a new version of the song with added music and lyrics.

Next I did a search on Author. The name Ager, Milton appeared twice, one with 58 entries, the other with 4. Of that, several songs appear but none matching Crazy Words, Crazy Tune.

A search on Yellen, Jack turned up five different items with 109 entries, none of which match our song.

With this I can assume the song Crazy Words, Crazy Tune falls under public domain -that is, unless I’ve missed something completely. Which is, of course, my question.

It’s hard to be exactly sure, but you sound like you have the right analysis. A compilation copyright does not copyright the material within the compilation, so that shouldn’t affect the song itself. Likewise, a revised version is subject to copyright even if the original is PD.

(The recording can also be copyrighted recordings, but that would still leave the original song PD.)

The U.S. Copyright Office website is accessible via the Library of Congress website, but is a separate website. The Copyright Office’s on-line database contains only copyright registrations and renewals filed since Jan. 1, 1978.

• To research the original registration or renewal of items whose copyright was secured 1923-1949, you must use the U.S Copyright Catalog in hardbound form (it’s not available on-line).

• To research the original registration of items whose copyright was secured 1950-1977, you must also use the U.S. Copyright in hardbound form.

• To research just the renewal of items whose copyright was secured 1950-present, you can use the on-line database.

Where can you find the U.S. Copyright Catalog (a serial published in four parts every year)? A federal depository library is a good place, especially one designated a “regional” federal depository library.

You can also pay a lot of money and wait several weeks for the Copyright Office to do the research for you.


Drat. I was hoping to NOT have to leg work at the library.

Good info though. Thanks. I somehow missed that on the LOC website.

I don’t know about it being a lot of money. It used to be only $20 per search. All right, that was ten years ago. I’m sure that it’s gone up since, but Seven only wants to do one search.

Re-read the OP. Seven wrote that there are several songs he wants to record that may not be in the public domain.

The fee for the Copyright Office to do a search and make a report on a work’s copyright status is now $75.