How Can I Check If a Document Is Copyrighted?

By Terry Masters

In the United States, the federal government controls official copyright registrations. Any creator that wants statutory copyright protection must register the creative work with the U.S Copyright Office. Centralizing registration in one government database makes checking to see if a particular document has an official copyright registration a one-stop project. Keep in mind that an owner of a creative work that is not registered with the U.S. Copyright Office still has a common law copyright of the work. A work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Official registration only affects the owner's ability to sue for infringement under federal law.

Step 1

Conduct a search in the U.S. Copyright Office's electronic database. Go to the website for the Copyright Office. Access the copyright registration database. The database contains records of all registrations dating from 1978. Perform the search using the name of the document or the name of the creator.

Step 2

Submit a search request directly to the U.S. Copyright Office. For an hourly fee, the Records, Research, and Certification Section will preform a manual search of the office's records. Use this search method for a copyright that may have come into existence prior to 1978 or to check the status of a copyright when you have incomplete identifying information. Go to the website and access the "Search Request Estimate" section. Fill out the online search request form. Submit the form online or contact the office at Library of Congress, Copyright Office–IRD, Records Research and Certification Section, 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20559-6300, fax: 202-252-3485, telephone: 202-707-6850.

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Step 3

Conduct a general Internet search for any instances where the document has been published. Also use library and periodical databases to check for publication. Common law copyright attaches to any creative work that has been released to the public. This protects the creator whether or not the work is ever officially registered with a government agency. Official registration only determines whether a creator can sue for infringement in federal court.

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