How to Find Out If an Image Is Copyrighted?

By Bryan Driscoll, J.D.

How to Find Out If an Image Is Copyrighted?

By Bryan Driscoll, J.D.

There are a few ways to find out if an image is copyrighted, such as conducting a search on the United States Copyright Office website, identifying the copyright symbol next to an image, or seeing a watermark over the image.

Man and woman sitting at a desk reviewing photos on a desktop computer

When you've created a visual work of art, it's important to register your image with the Copyright Office. After you've done this, your image is fully protected, and you have the right to collect monetary damages from anyone using your image without your permission.

What is a Copyrighted Image?

The United States federal law states that any "work of visual art" is an image that receives copyright protection. Examples include:

  • Photographs
  • Drawings
  • Sketches
  • Diagrams
  • Maps

So for peace of mind, consider outside services to make sure that your images are properly registered and protected.

About the U.S. Copyright Office

The U.S. Copyright Office was established in 1897 and offers a variety of services and record-keeping services for items protected by the United States Copyright Act. Particularly, the U.S. Copyright Office's Records Research and Certification Section provides information on both complete and pending copyright images. The office employs roughly 400 individuals, most of whom examine countless copyright claims that are found in music, movies, pictures, books, journals, and other works.

Some interesting 2018 statistics for the Copyright Office include the following:

  • Approximately 520,000 claims
  • Issuance of more than 560,000 registrations
  • A total of 96% of claims received through the online application system
  • More than $38 million in registration fees

Search the U.S. Copyright Office Database

To determine if an image is already subject to copyright protection, you can conduct an online search. Checking to see if someone has registered an image is a fairly simple process. You do, however, need to know about the image because you will need to provide accurate and detailed information to receive comprehensive search results.

Before beginning your search, it's a good idea to gather as much detailed information about the image as you can. You should know the artist, the date they published the image, and the image name, if applicable. This information is crucial to the next step in your process. Be sure the information you gather is not only accurate, but also up to date.

Now, you're ready to conduct your search. If no image is found, it could mean the image you're looking for was registered prior to 1978. If this is the case, you can contact the Copyright Office at 202-707-6850, as they will need to conduct a manual search. Historical records go back to 1870. There is an hourly fee associated with this service.

If you do not find the image in the search results, it could also mean the image is not registered. Be careful making this assumption without conducting additional searches. Try removing some criteria from your search to broaden the results. Carefully review the results to make sure the image you want to use is not registered.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.