How to Tell if Something is Protected by Copyright

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Determining if a particular work is covered by copyright can be a cumbersome task.

Take, for instance, an simple audio recording. There, you’ve got multiple ownership rights to contend with, including the song lyric writer’s rights, the score composer’s rights, and the performing artist’s rights.  It may be that some of these elements are in the public domain, while others are protected by copyright.  On top of all this, where and when the song was published makes a difference, as does whether work was created by a corporate entity or by an individual. If the work was published without an explicit “© notice,” it can affect the copyright term, depending on when the work was published.

This example should highlight that there is often more than meets the eye when it comes to determining whether a particular work is in the public domain.  As such, proceed with caution, and as always, consult with an attorney before you take any action.

That said, here are a couple of useful starting points for determining whether a work is protected by copyright.

A useful chart:  Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States  Hosted at Cornell Law School, this chart will help you determine whether a particular work is protected by copyright or in the public domain.

A useful web application: The Copyright Digital Slider provides a graphical interface to the data in the above chart.

Search the U.S. Copyright Office’s online database. Keep in mind that not only is this database incomplete, but a work does not need to be registered with the Office to be eligible for copyright protection.

The Harry Fox Agency handles music rights clearance for most everyone in the songwriting ‘biz.  If you’re looking to see if a particular song is protected by copyright, check the Harry Fox website and see if they offer mechanical licenses for the song.  If they do, the composition itself is probably protected. Note that Harry Fox will sell you a license to record a song yourself, but not a license to use a particular performance. See their website for more information.

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