There are three parts to copyright research. First, you must isolate elements that are necessary to perform your research. For example, you must examine the work for clues such as copyright notice or publication date that will help your research. Second, you must define a method for searching copyright records. You may choose to have the Copyright Office perform the research or you may attempt to search copyright records on the Internet. Finally, you must initiate the search and examine the documents it retrieves. This section discusses the first step—examining the work for clues.
Your first step is to physically examine the work you want to use for information that will help you locate copyright documents in the Copyright Office records. Check the work for the following information:
- Copyright notice. The copyright notice is usually on or near the title page of a book; visible at the end of a movie; printed on a compact disc cover or video box; or stamped on the back of a photograph or artwork. For computer programs, it may be located in the Help File under “About this Program.” The copyright notice has three parts: the “c” in a circle (©) or the word “copyright,” the date of first publication (or, in rare cases, the date of registration), and the name of the copyright owner.
- Title of the work. Because Copyright Office records are indexed by title, the title of the work is one of the most important elements in copyright research. Alternative titles may also be helpful (both main and alternative titles are usually listed on the copyright registration).
- Name(s) of author(s). Like the title, the name of the author(s) is helpful when searching Copyright Office records because it is usually listed on every copyright document pertaining to that work. Pseudonyms are also traceable in the Copyright Office. Even “Anonymous,” as a listing for an author, when cross-referenced with the title, can be helpful in locating a work.
- The name of the copyright owner. This may be the author, publisher, or producer of a work. The likely name of the owner is listed in the copyright notice—“likely” because you can never rely solely on the copyright notice for determining the current copyright owner. If you’re dealing with an older work, for example, it’s possible that ownership may have been transferred or reclaimed since publication. However, the name of the owner listed in the copyright notice is a helpful starting point for your research.
- Year of publication or registration. The date of publication is ordinarily listed in the copyright notice. This date usually indicates when copyright protection began, though it may be the year that particular version of the work was first published.
What If the Copyright Notice Does Not Include the Date?
Because certain industries successfully lobbied Congress for the right to omit the year on copyright notices, the copyright notice may not include the date of first publication. The date can be omitted on greeting cards, stationery, jewelry, toys, or useful articles on which a photograph, graphic, or sculptural work (and accompanying text) appears. For example a greeting card may include the notice “© Hallmark Greetings,” with no date. Where no date is provided, you may need to research Copyright Office records to verify the date of first publication.
- Title, volume, or issue of serialized publication. If the work you want to use was originally published as a part of a periodical or collection, the title of the publication and other information, such as the volume or issue number, may be useful in searching the Copyright Office records.
- Underlying works and works contained within works. Many works, referred to as “derivatives,” are based upon other works. For example, motion pictures are often based on books or plays. The work upon which another is based is referred to as the “source” or “underlying” work. For instance, the movie Jurassic Park is based on the novel of the same name. Copyright information about a source work, such as its title or author, can often be found within the derivative work. For example, the motion picture Jurassic Park indicates in its opening credits, “Based upon the novel Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton.”
- Identifying numbers. Identifying numbers, particularly the registration number or other indexing data, may help in your copyright search. Many media industries have a system of cataloging works. For example, publishers use ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) for books or ISSNs (International Standard Serial Numbers) for serial publications. The Library of Congress has its own catalog system known as the LCCN (Library of Congress Catalog Number). These numbers, which are usually located on the same page as the copyright notice, may prove helpful in identifying works when performing copyright research.