Updated October 27, 2020:

The following are steps describing how to find out if something is copyrighted:

  1. Perform a search in the online copyright index.
  2. Look over the results.
  3. Narrow the search, if needed.

Copyright is a form of intellectual property law that provides protection to artists from inappropriate use and theft. The types of artists vary, but a couple of examples include:

  • Novelists
  • Musicians

There are four primary forms of intellectual property laws in the United States with copyright being one of them. It provides a legal means of protecting an artist's ownership of both published and unpublished creations such as:

A key concept to note concerning copyright is that it must come from the mind and transfer to something more precise and tangible or a form capable of being copyrighted. Simply speaking, it's more than an idea. For example, when an artist has the idea for an artwork in his or her mind, it is not yet protected by copyright. When he or she puts the vision to paper and creates the work, it becomes precise and tangible. At that point, it receives copyright protection.

Although an individual does not have to do anything beyond creating a work to have copyright protection, the protection will not offer a whole lot if he or she does not submit a federal copyright registration through the US Copyright Office.

In order to register, individuals must do the following:

  1. Go to the US Copyright Office's webpage.
  2. Click the link to register a copyright.
  3. Click the link to log-in to the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO) Registration System.
  4. Complete the registration.

When registering, applicants must provide a lot of various information. The application may end up faulty and without value if it has errors in it. For example, individuals must input whether the intended copyright is a published work or an unpublished work. Although this seems like a straightforward choice, the Copyright Office's definition of published and unpublished work is not the same as the standard definition.

Furthermore, even classifying the type of work is a confusing process depending on the situation. For this reason, individuals should strongly consider hiring a copyright lawyer to take charge of this process.

How to Check for Copyrighting

When a work is registered with the US Copyright Office, it gives the owner of the copyright the right to legally act against anyone who uses the work without permission. To determine if a work is copyrighted, individuals should view the current copyright registrations. Copyrights registered in and after 1978 are accessible online, but any works registered before 1978 require research in-person.

The following are steps to researching copyrights online:

  1. Visit the US Copyright Office's webpage and search for the work using its title, name, or keyword.
  2. View the results.
  3. If needed, narrow the results.

If individuals do not know the name or title when searching a work, they can type in a keyword. This option will provide copyright records that include that keyword. For instance, when searching for a poem about a sparrow, an individual can use the word "sparrow" as a keyword.

When the results come up, they appear alphabetically by title. If the results provided are overwhelming, users can narrow the results by the following options:

  • Date registered
  • Year registered
  • Index Name

The index name search uses more detailed information, such as the tangible description or the name of the owner of the copyright, to narrow down the results. Individuals can locate the index name codes needed to search certain indexes on the US Copyright Offices's webpage.

To research works registered before 1978, individuals can use the following steps:

  1. Find a copyright card catalog at a local library.
  2. Search the catalog for the desired work.
  3. If needed, visit the James Madison Memorial Building in the Library of Congress for a more full list of copyrighted works.

When visiting a local library, individuals should request authorization from the librarian for use of the copyright card catalog. The order of the catalog is year and type of work. The cards will typically provide the following information regarding the work:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Claimant's name
  • Date of publication

If you need help finding out if something is copyrighted, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.