How to find out if something is copyrighted – a quick guide
Copyright protection of your work is a very important part of protecting your valuable intellectual property. However, many creators neglect to take care on the opposite side of things – how to find out if something is copyrighted. Well, let’s learn how!
What is copyright?
Copyright is one of four main types of intellectual property that are protected by US law. Copyright law protects original works of authorship, which can be any number of types of creative works, including:
- Computer software code
- Sculptures and 3d models
- Dance choreography
- Sound recordings
- Musical compositions, etc.
The important thing with copyright is that it’s more than just an idea – it has to be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” This sounds more complicated than it is. You basically just have to transfer the thing to be protected from your mind to something more tangible.
For example, if you have a poem inside your head, it doesn’t yet have copyright protection. As soon as you write it down or type it on your computer and hit “save,” it is now fixed. This “fixation” is the moment at which copyright protection begins.
While you don’t have to do anything else in order to have copyright rights, there isn’t much you can do with those rights if you don’t file a federal copyright registration. This is done through the US Copyright Office.
When you want to register your copyright in the US, you need to hit up www.copyright.gov. From there, click on the link to “register copyrights” and you’ll be taken to a page with a link to the eCO system – this is where you do the registration.
It’s here where I will advise you to contact a copyright lawyer to take over. This is because there is a lot of information you need to input, and making a mistake could make the application worthless.
For instance, do you know if your work was published or unpublished? It’s not as easy as you think – the Copyright Office’s definition of published isn’t the same as the common definition. Also, even deciding on the type of work to be registered can be difficult, depending on the circumstances.
How to find out if something is copyrighted?
Searching copyright records
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. How do you check if something is copyrighted?
We found out earlier that every original creative work is “copyrighted” as soon as it’s written down or saved in some tangible form. If you want to check registrations, though, you need to use the search engine on copyright.gov.
It’s not as easy as you’d think, though.
When you search for a title, you’re relying on them having registered it under the title you know it as. For a TV Show or book, that’s not usually a problem. But for photographs, dances, and other things, it may be hard to find.
You can also search by the company name, but that’s not always as simple as it sounds, either. The copyright owner may have changed over the years, either by changing their name or assigning the copyright. This is fairly common.
Plus, there are a TON of copyright records. Many search terms you enter will return a huge amount of results. Sifting through them can be a nightmare.
What about the public domain?
Another thing to think about when checking if something is copyrighted is whether or not it has fallen into the public domain. As a general rule, anything that was created before 1923 is automatically in the public domain and freely usable.
Other dates have different rules, which are a little more complicated than I can cover in this post. I’ll direct you to this awesome chart from Cornell – that should explain it all!
I hope you’ve learned a lot about copyright in this post, particularly how to find out if something is copyrighted. For assistance with registering, searching, or licensing your copyright, contact a copyright attorney for a free consultation.
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