Identifying items that are copyrighted can help you avoid committing copyright infringement, and locating the owner of a copyright is vital if you would like to purchase a license enabling you to use a copyrighted item. The U.S. Copyright Office provides a list of registered copyrighted items and is an excellent starting point for locating copyright owners. However, an owner does not have to register copyrights to own the rights to its item, so it's vital to look for other clues that an item might be copyrighted.
Look for a copyright symbol associated with the object for which you are trying to find copyright information. Websites frequently place copyright symbols at the bottom of the page, while photographs may have a name or copyright symbol within the photograph. Books normally have a copyright notice on the first page where publication information is located. The name next to the copyright symbol is the person or entity that owns the rights to the item. If you are seeking permission to use the item, contact this person or entity.
Search the U.S. Copyright Office's copyright records, which catalogs registered copyrights dating back to January 1, 1978. You can search by copyright holder name, keyword, document number or registration number. If you do not find the item you are looking for, this does not mean the item is not registered. Items copyrighted prior to 1978 will not show up in the search results. Searches do not return records of assignments, which occur when someone grants full rights to someone else. Thus these searches may not conclusively yield the rights holder. Further, items do not have to be registered with the Copyright Office to be copyrighted. You can request that the Copyright Office do a search for you -- which will typically return more accurate results -- by contacting the office and paying a small fee.
Contact the publication source if there is no copyright information. For example, the webmaster may have copyright information about items on a website while entities that publish pamphlets and booklets should be able to tell you who owns the copyrights to images and text used in the published item. Some companies base their whole business upon licensing copyrighted items to others, so the publication source does not necessarily own the copyrights but should be able to tell you who does.
Look to see if the item is licensed under a creative commons license. This licensing structure is frequently used for online material and the publishing website should note somewhere that the item is licensed in this way. Creative commons licenses vary and may require that you credit the source, link back to the original website or ask permission prior to use. In some cases, creative commons licenses allow you to use the item without seeking permission. Websites that use creative commons licenses usually list the terms of the creative commons license.
If you cannot find any copyright information, avoid using the item. Although there is a chance that it is not copyrighted, penalties for copyright infringement can be severe.
- Creative Commons: A User Guide; Simone Aliprandi
- U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright Basics
- Copyright Plain and Simple; Cheryl Besenjak
- U.S. Copyright Office: How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Wor