How to find out if something is copyrighted

Written by bill kanapaux
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A copyright legally protects an individual’s published and unpublished works of authorship. The copyright owner has the exclusive right to authorise others to use that work. If you use a copyrighted work without this authorisation, you run the risk of legal actions that can include financial damages and criminal charges.

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  1. 1

    Is the work ineligible for copyright protection? Not all works can be copyrighted. Titles, names, short phrases, ideas, methods and concepts cannot be copyrighted. Works composed entirely of common-property information with no original authorship also cannot be copyrighted.

  2. 2

    Is the work fixed in a tangible form of expression? For an original work to be copyrighted, it must be fixed in either print or a form that is communicated with a machine or device. This includes literary works, musical works, pictures, movies, audio recordings and software.

  3. 3

    Is the work in the public domain? Some works are no longer protected by copyright. In the US, these include all works published before 1923 and works published through 1977 without a copyright notice. Some copyrighted works are released under a Creative Commons license, which permits free use under specified conditions.

  4. 4

    Does the work have a copyright notice? Physically examine the work for a copyright notice, place and date of publication, author’s name, or publisher. For recorded works, examine the disk, cartridge or cassette as well as its cover or container.

  5. 5

    Search the “Catolog of Copyright Entries.” This was published in print from 1891 to 1978 and on microfiche from 1979 to 1982. Copies of the catalogue can be found in many US. libraries. Works from 1978 to the present can be found via the Internet at the Library of Congress’s automated catalogue.

  6. 6

    Ask the Copyright Office to search its records. Copyright law can get complicated, and even if your search up to this point finds no evidence of copyright, the work in question may still be protected by law. E-mail for more information.

Tips and warnings

  • Even copyrighted material can be used in a limited way under the rules of Fair Use.
  • Laws concerning Fair Use are complicated and you should proceed with caution if you decide to use copyrighted material without permission.

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