This article is from the Copyright Law FAQ, by Terry Carroll with numerous contributions by others.
A federal statute is generally enacted as a "public law," and
is assigned a P.L. number. This number indicates the Congress in which
it was enacted, and the law number within the Congress. For example, the
Copyright Act of 1976 was the 553rd law enacted by the 94th Congress, and
so is officially catalogued as P.L. 94-553. If you know the P.L. number
of a law, you can generally find it in the United States Code
Congressional and Administrative News (U.S.C.C.A.N.), or in Statutes at
Large (see below) easily.
Once enacted, Public Laws are catalogued in a official statute list
called "Statutes At Large." Citations to Statutes at Large ("Stat.") are
similar to that for cases: volume, service identifier, and page number.
For example, the Copyright Act of 1976 may be cited as 90 Stat 2541,
meaning that it is in Statutes At Large, volume 90, page 2541.
However, most statutes, as enacted, are not very useful to read. They're
generally written in a style saying that a prior act is amended by adding
certain words or phrases, and deleting others. Without seeing the
context of the modified portion, you really can't see what the statute
This problem is handled by statutory codifications. In particular, most
U.S. laws are organized into "titles" of the U.S. Code (U.S.C.). Each
title governs a particular area of law. For example, Title 17 deals with
copyright law. These codifications are periodically updated by taking
the original laws and applying the modifications made by subsequent laws
so that the result is the text of the law as it is in effect today. In
practice, almost every citation to law (including the majority of those
in this FAQ) are to the U.S.C., not to the individual public laws.
A typical citation to the U.S.C. looks like this: 17 U.S.C. 107. This is
a reference to U.S. Code, Title 17, section 107 (which happens to be the
fair use provisions of copyright).
While there is an official U.S. Code published by the U.S. government,
there are two commercially published versions of the code, too. These
are West Publishing's U.S. Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.) and Lawyers
Cooperative Publishing Co.'s U.S. Code Service (U.S.C.S.). In practice,
because of the private versions are frequently updated, and contain
extras such as cross-references to other statutes, cases, law review
articles and other resources, they are used far more frequently than the