How to Check If Something Has a Copyright on It

By Michelle Kaminsky

How to Check If Something Has a Copyright on It

By Michelle Kaminsky

A copyright gives its owner the legal right to sue another for the unauthorized use of the work covered by the copyright. The U.S. Copyright Office grants protection to various creative works, including novels, musical compositions, paintings, sculptures, and even computer software code. Notably, ideas cannot be copyrighted, but once an idea is in a tangible form—written down or recorded, for example — the creator gains certain rights. To receive full protection under the law, however, including the right to sue in federal court for infringement, the creator must apply for a copyright with the Copyright Office.

Accordingly, if you are trying to determine whether or how you can legally use someone else's creative work, you should start by determining whether the work is copyrighted.

Here are the basic steps to determining whether a work has a copyright on it:

1. Examine the Work Itself

Many copyrighted works—but not all—include a copyright notice so others are aware that the work is protected. A copyright notice is generally printed in the beginning of a book, for example. This type of notice is not legally required, however, so just because you don't see one on a work doesn't mean it isn't protected by copyright.

Note that for more recent works, you may see a Creative Commons notice that tells you the type of protection the author has attached to the work.

2. Determine When the Work Was Likely Copyrighted

The year 1978 is a big one in copyright law because it's when the Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect. Works copyrighted after 1978 are found in an online database, whereas those copyrighted before 1978 can be located in a copyright card catalog at a local library.

3. Search the Copyright Office's Website

For works copyrighted after 1978, you can search the online database by using the title, creator's name, or keyword.

Depending on your search terms, you may get so many results that you need to narrow them down by further filters. You may do so using the date or year the work was registered and/or the index name.

4. Search a Copyright Card Catalog

For works copyrighted before 1978, use a copyright catalog at a library. The copyright card catalog is sorted by year and type of work and lists the work's title, author, date of publication, and claimant's name. This process takes some legwork, but a librarian should be able to help you.

5. Go to Washington, D.C.

Your next option is to travel in person to the James Madison Memorial Building in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to consult the full list of copyrighted works. Again, you would search according to the information you have available to you regarding the work.

6. Request That the Copyright Office Perform a Search

As a last resort, you may choose to request that the Copyright Office search for the copyright registration for you. The office's website includes a fee schedule that details how much such a search could cost you.

Alternatively, you may hire a private search company to perform the copyright search.

Regardless of how you eventually find out whether a work is copyrighted, you must make an effort to make sure you aren't infringing on another's protected work and opening yourself up to a lawsuit.

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.