Given all the attention copyright law gets, one would think copyright protection is of vital interest to creators of original works of authorship. The copyright industries are fond of pointing out the relative importance of their industries to the GDP, and indeed they are important. This too might make one believe copyright protection is pervasively important. How can one measure the importance of copyright protection though (without going into the scope or extent of that protection, which is obviously also an important question)?
One way, an imperfect one, is to look at copyright registrations, since for U.S. works, registration (or rejection) is a prerequisite to bringing suit and for all works it is a prerequisite for getting statutory damages and attorneys fees. In FY 2004, the Copyright Office received 614,235 claims and registered 661,469 claims (the larger number being attributable to the processing of claims received in FY 2003 as well). More copyrighted works are created in part of one day in New York City alone. Not more economically valuable works necessarily, and that's part of why registration figures can't supply a complete answer. But 600,000 plus works a year is a very small number (and that number also includes registrations for foreign works).
Even within the 600,000 plus figure, the numbers are heavily weighted toward some groups and away from others. The fine arts are one example of a class of works that have, historically, been underrepresented in registrations. Choreography is another. The Register of Copyrights' 2004 Annual Report lists registration numbers for the broad class of performing arts, a class that also includes music, motion pictures and other audiovisual works, and other dramatic works. This class represented 170,512 registrations in FY 2004. More detailed breakdowns are given though in the number of registered works transferred to the Library's collections. Here, while the category includes dramatic works, it does not include music or motion pictures and other audiovisual works. Only 1,115 registered dramatic works , choreography, and pantomimes were transferred to the Library.
This very low figure corresponds to the legal literature on copyright and choreography, which repeatedly notes choreographers' decision not to rely on copyright and to instead develop their own "community" system of protection, protection believed to be better suited to choreography and providing better protection. The community system works in large part because of the concentration of choreographers in New York City, the tight-knit nature of dance companies, and the reputation within the community enjoyed by choreographers.
In brief, the dance community recognizes the choreographer's right to control his or her works even after they have been performed. Where a dance company different from that for whom the work was originally written wishes to perform the work, the choreographer ensures that the company is capable of performing the work and that it will ensure the integrity of it. A formal license agreement is entered into. This sounds like contract law, and it is. But the recognition of a choreographer's interest goes well beyond this, including rights of attribution where the work is revised, and a right to withdraw the work from performance. Interesting discussions can be found in Barbara Singer, "In Search of Adequate Protection for Choreographic Works: Legislative and Judicial Alternatives vs. the Custom of the Dance Community, 38 U. Miami L. Rev. 287 (1984) and Leslie Wallis, "The Different Art: Choreography and Copyright," 33 UCLA L. Rev. 1442 (1986).
The choreography example may be unique, but one wonders what form of protection, if any, the vast majority of copyrighted works not registered each year rely on, and whether amidst all the debates on copyright we are fussing about the tip of the iceberg.