Writings automatically become copyrighted the minute they are created and fixed in tangible form, such as a writing on paper or in an electronic file. The copyright is valid, even if the writing is not published, registered with the federal government or marked with the copyright symbol. Before using someone else's written work, you need to know whether it is protected by copyright.
Duration of Copyright Protection
A copyright gives the author the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute an original work. If the work was created on or after 1978, copyrights protect the work for the life of the author, plus 70 years. After a copyright expires, the work falls into the public domain and anyone can reproduce or distribute the work. For anonymous works, the copyright expires 95 years after first publication. If the anonymous work was never published, the copyright expires 120 years after creation.
You can search for evidence of a copyright by looking for a "c" in a circle, or the abbreviation "copr" and the date. You can check to see if a federally registered copyright exists, by using the search engine at the U.S. Copyright Office website. However, a copyright may still exist in the absence of such a mark.
Permission to Use Copyrighted Writing
A copyright might exist even if your search is unrevealing, because there is no duty to register a work. Unless the writing is so old that the copyright has expired, you should ask the author or her estate for permission to use the writing. Some limited use of another's writing may be allowed without permission under the Fair Use Doctrine, including for research and educational purposes.