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In this post, I discuss how to conduct a copyright search to discover what works have taken advantage of the protections of registration.

copyright search

Photo by a.poll_o is licensed under CC 2.0

Registering your copyright with the United States Copyright Office puts the entire world on notice of your intellectual ownership of a specific work. It therefore makes sense that you must register your copyright before enforcing your rights against those who would infringe upon it. (See 17 USC § 411(a)).

After all, it would unfair to extract significant damages from someone for infringing on a work whose protections would not be readily known. (Of course, a suit can be brought for infringement of works unregistered at the time of infringement, though damages are limited.) This is where registration comes into play. If your work is registered, the whole world is considered to be on notice of your rights, whether they actually conduct a copyright search or not.

So, how do you conduct a copyright search? There are several ways to conduct a copyright search, but the three main ways are

  1. Examine the actual work. A copyright notice—such as the © symbol followed by the year—is often a good give away. The work may also contain information regarding the place and date of publication, the author, and publisher.
  2. Conduct your own copyright search.
  3. Pay a fee to have the Copyright Office conduct the search for you.

Searching the Copyright Office records can be complex and cumbersome, particularly for works registered prior to 1982. The Copyright Office has been slowly digitizing the registration records preceding 1982, but currently records preceding 1978 are not available online. You are, however, free to search the records in person at the Library of Congress, though this is often not feasible if you do not live in the Washington, D.C. area.

The Copyright Office will search its records for you and provide you with a report for a fee. This fee, however, can be significant. The current rate is $165 per hour with a minimum charge of two hours.

For $115, the Office will provide you with an estimate of the search fees. If you purchase the actual search services, the $115 payment will be applied against those fees, but if you do not, the $115 fee is nonrefundable.

It is important to understand, however, that, while the Copyright Office can provide you with a search report, it cannot provide you with legal advice. If you need a legal opinion associated with the search, it is advisable to hire an attorney to represent your interests.

This can be particularly important because the results of the search are not always conclusive. Sometimes the Copyright Office has no record of protected works—particularly for unpublished works created before 1978 and unregistered works created after 1978.

When dealing with copyrights, it is almost always better to have the assistance of a competent attorney.


Copyright basics
How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work


Copyright Basics

Mandatory Deposit of Copies or Phonorecords for the Library of Congress


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