Copyright is a type of intellectual property law that protects the original works of various artists, including novelists and musicians from theft and misuse by other parties. Registration of a copyright with the United States Copyright Office allows the claimant — the owner of the copyright — to take legal action against any unauthorized use of the copyrighted work. You can check current registrations to see if a work has been copyrighted. Copyright registrations filed in 1978 or later can be searched online, but copyrights filed before 1978 require in-person research.
1978 to Present
Use the online copyright catalog search at the United States Copyright Office's official website. You can search by the title, name and keyword for specific searches; use "keyword" if you're not sure of the title or name. A keyword search returns any copyright records with the keyword in it. For example, if you're looking for a copyrighted play that centers on a globe, "globe" is a possible keyword.
View the results. The results are arranged in alphabetical order by work title.
Use the "Other Search Options" search if you need to narrow down the results. You can narrow down the results by date or year filed or by index name. Index name searches use specific information from registered copyrights, such as the physical description or the copyright's claimant, to filter results. The index name codes you need to search specific indexes are listed on the United States Copyright Office's official website.
Visit a local public library. Ask the librarian for permission to view the library's copy of the copyright card catalog.
Search the catalog copy. The catalog is organized by year registered and class of work. There were 15 classes used prior to 1978, such as "book" and "painting." Determine the work's class and locate the group of cards in the catalog. Search the class for the work; read each card. Cards usually contain the name of the work, its author, the claimant's name and the publication date.
Visit the James Madison Memorial Building in the Library of Congress if you need to search more thoroughly or are looking for more information about a particular copyright. The full catalog of copyrights registered before 1978 is available for public inspection at:
Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building, Room LM-404 101 Independence Avenue SE Washington, DC 20559-6300.
The catalog of copyrights registered before 1978 is only available for public inspection Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern; the building is closed on federal holidays.
The United States Copyright Office staff can conduct a search of the original card catalog for you, but a fee of $165 each hour, with a two-hour minimum, is required as of 2011. Visit the copyright office's official website to request a search estimate online.
Library copies of the copyright card catalog might be missing information, such as the assignment of a copyright to another party.
- United States Copyright Office: Set Search Limits
- United States Copyright Office: Other Search Options - Index Name Search
- United States Copyright Office: The Copyright Card Catalog
- United States Copyright Office: Copyright in General
- United States Copyright Office: How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?
- Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images