1. Know What You're Searching For
The methods you use will vary depending on a number of factors especially the date of publication of the work you're looking for. Knowing when the protected material was published can be an important first step to an expedited search. Finding and verifying the copyright status for works published after 1978 is easy, as all copyright records since that date are available at cocatalog.loc.gov. The situation is more complicated when you want to find information about copyrighted works from before that date.
2. Search the Catalog of Copyright Entries
For pre-1978 records, you could search the Library of Congress card catalogue in person, but that option isn't especially convenient unless you live in Washington, DC. The next best search method is to use the Catalog of Copyright Entries (CCE), which is an index of the copyright entries in the records of the Copyright Office. Most large public libraries in the United States will carry a copy of the CCE. Each entry provides rudimentary information, including whether the copyright has been renewed and the name of its current owner. While the information is sometimes limited, especially if you want to look for transfers of intellectual property ownership, it is an excellent starting point for any copyright search. Note that you may still have to track down the entry, as the CCE doesn't quote the registrations verbatim, only the most important facts.
3. Narrow Down the Search
Once you have a few leads to investigate, the method you use will depend on your needs:
- For the purposes of identifying the owner, you will want to focus on certificates of registration issued by the Copyright Office. More specifically, you will want to review section 4, Copyright Claimant and/or Transfer fields.
- For the purposes of determining whether the work has entered public domain, you will need to consult the date of the copyright registration. Works published before 1923 are in the public domain. Works published between 1923 and 1963 are protected for 28 years if the copyright was not renewed, or 95 years if it was. It's safest to assume that works published later than 1923 are copyrighted.
4. Get Help to Save Time
Note that you don't have to perform the search on your own. An intellectual property lawyer can help you through the process. Similarly, the Library of Congress may perform a search for registration entries, as long as you pay an hourly fee to cover the expenses.
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.