Assume Copyright Until Proven OtherwiseWhile copyright protection at one time only applied if a proper Copyright Notice was included with the work, this is no longer true. The easiest way to avoid copyright infringement today is to simply always assume that a given work is protected by federal copyright, unless you can reliably confirm that it is not. This is especially important with information found on the Internet. If you can find it, chances are someone owns the rights to it.
Understand Copyright ExemptionsThat said, even if a work is protected, you may use it in certain circumstances. Otherwise known as "fair use," this kind of use is only for noncommercial purposes such as criticism, commentary, or teaching. Even then, you need to consider the exact purpose of the use, the extent of the use, how substantial it is, and the impact such use would have on the work's market value. When in doubt, it's often best to assume it's not okay and avoid the using the copyrighted work - or alternatively, ask for permission from the copyright holder.
Understand the Limits of CopyrightTo fully understand how to avoid copyright infringement, you need to remember that in some cases, protection doesn't apply. Facts and ideas are generally considered to be in the public domain. This means that you can easily write your own alternate history book based on actual historical events. However, writing a book based on another person's work would be considered infringement, as facts and ideas created by a writer are considered original thought protected by the law - unless, of course, the copyright has lapsed and the work has entered the public domain. You should always exercise caution and investigate the copyright status of works you want to use. While the general rule is that pre -1923 works are considered public domain, in certain cases, such as publication past that date, they might still be protected by federal copyright law.
Consult an AttorneyIntellectual property law is a constantly changing field, and even if the letter of the law is clear, its implementation may not be. If you have a complicated IP issue or simply have unanswered questions it may be best to ask a lawyer.
This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.