A copyright prevents others from unfairly using what the U.S. Copyright Office refers to as “an original work of authorship,” such as a book or a piece of music. Learning whether such works are copyrighted can be an arduous task. The difficulty lies in determining whether a copyright exists and whether it has expired. The matter is further complicated because expiration dates vary depending on when and where the copyright application is filed. Online copyright search services can be helpful in making a search, but even they do not always reveal whether the copyright was assigned to someone else.
Examine the product and look for a small "C" with a circle around it. This mark need not be on the product itself, but might be on the packaging. In the case of a recording, examine the album cover, liner notes, sleeve, cassette or CD case. In the case of a book, inspect the first pages of the volume and dust jacket. This mark indicates a copyright once existed. It does not indicate whether the copyright is still valid or to whom the copyright belongs.
Determine approximately when the recording or document was created. If the item was created between 1891 and 1982, you might find evidence of a recorded copyright in the "Catalog of Copyright Entries," which is published by the U.S. Copyright Office. Bound or microfiche copies of this catalog are often found in university libraries. Although this catalog is not all-inclusive, entries indicate who applied for the copyright and when. They do not necessarily indicate whether the copyright has expired, if it is has been renewed or if it was assigned.
Search the copyright catalog of the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, D.C. if a search in the "Catalog of Copyright Entries" doesn't reveal anything or the work was copyrighted after 1982. Records in the Copyright Office are open to the public. The Office is located in the Library of Congress, James Madison Memorial Building. If you are not able to visit the Copyright Office in person, you can search their catalog online through their website or hire a search service. If you hire a search service, the service will go to the Copyright Office and conduct the search for you. If the search is productive, you will learn when the copyright application was made and by whom.
Determine the term of the copyright if one appears to have existed. Works that were copyrighted on or after January 1, 1978 are protected from the time of creation through the author's life, plus 70 years. This rules also applies to most works created prior to January 1, 1978. The North American Free Trade Agreement also provides some protection for works that were copyrighted abroad.
Search the U.S. Copyright Office for renewal of a copyright if the work was published before January 1, 1978 and the copyright appears expired. A copyright can be extended if a valid renewal registration was made during the 28th year of the first term of the copyright.