Copyright

How can I Find Out if a Creative Work is Copyright Free?

Given the popularity of street art, video mash-ups, remixes or pop art, its important to know whether the works being used in an artist’s’ new creation is protected by copyright. Even though fair use is a defense when using other people’s work when creating something new and unique, fair use is still only a defense. It doesn’t mean that a copyright holder won’t come after you, especially if they see big dollars signs. So, it would be great to know if an image, audio track or video is out of copyright and therefore in the Public Domain, free and clear of any potential hassles.

The Spring 1957 issue of Space Science Fiction...
The Spring 1957 issue of Space Science Fiction Magazine in the Public Domain.

You might think that in this day and age, the Copyright Office would have a beautiful website where you can upload a URL of a web image to see if it has been registered for copyright. Unfortunately, not only does the Copyright Office not have that awesome system, it doesn’t actually show images, audio or video at all in their searchable database, only titles, author’s name and descriptions.  If you don’t know anything about the work, you are out of luck — yes, your government dollars hard at work using technology from 1979.

That doesn’t help with unregistered works anyway, so what can we do? Unfortunately, it is not an easy problem to solve but there are a few rules and tricks that can help. First let’s look at the U.S. Federal rules for copyright duration. (We only are looking at U.S. published works because works available to most users on the web, in books or magazines, are published.  Unpublished works have slightly different rules)

For any work published after Jan 1. 1978, the duration is from creation to 70 years after the author’s death. For corporate owned works, (works made for hire) and anonymous and pseudonymous works, the duration of copyright is 95 years from first publication. Also, any work published after Jan 1, 1978 is automatically copyrighted. That does not mean it is a registered copyright, it just means you don’t have to register to prove it is yours. You do have to register the work to benefit from statutory awards or to file a lawsuit through.

For works published before Jan 1, 1978, copyright protection required registration with the Copyright Office and a notice of copyright © on the works. The terms for a copyright varies because the law changed over the years, but generally, copyright terms were much shorter and required the registration to be renewed. Here are some general guidelines.

  1. Any work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain.
  2. Any work published between 1923 and 1977 that doesn’t have a copyright notice, is in the public domain
  3. Any work created between 1923 and 1963 with a notice but copyright wasn’t renewed, is in the public domain.
  4. Any work created between 1923 and 1963 with a notice and was renewed or from 1963 until 1977 is copyrighted for 95 years from the first date of publication, which means as of 2013, are all under copyright protection.

One caveat you should be aware of is that given the digital age, not having a © notice does not mean it wasn’t originally placed on the work and someone along the way cropped it out, so be careful.

As a rule, iconic works are probably copyrighted, particularly photographs. The photographer probably wouldn’t have given up the rights to those types of images, and would likely have renewed the work. Also, works that are registered regularly as part of a business model, such as movie posters from MGM films, are probably regularly renewed, at least for the major works.

Surprisingly, many of the movie star images from the 1950s and 60s are in the Public Domain. Still shots from movies are not automatically copyrighted when the movie itself is registered. The studio was required to register stills separately, and this wasn’t done very often. And with digital movies, it is easy to grab a still now. Also, publicity photos, like star head-shots, have traditionally not been registered. Since they were disseminated to the public, they were generally considered public domain.

Ok, so how do we know what is registered, for sure? There is no foolproof way but there are a few tips that can help in your research. First, for images, try searching for other versions scattered throughout the web using software tools like src-img or another image search tool. If there are relatively few available, they are not on professional sites such as the New York Times, and using the context of the image (like a movie theater in the background showing Star Wars), pegs the date of publication as before 1977, the odds are it is in the Public domain, but not necessarily overwhelming odds.

For any work published after Jan 1. 1978, the duration of copyright is from creation to 70 years after the author’s death.

For iconic images, movie posters, books, music and other “titled” works, they can be found on the Copyright Office database. If the works are from before 1977 and required registration, then they should be in the database.  The Copyright Office eCo system has various parameters that can be searched, like title, author, or date.  Just search on one of those parameters or enter a description of the Work. Enter Attack of the 50ft Woman, Eleanor Rigby, Warhol Campbell’s Soup or William Faulkner and you’ll have a good chance of finding the copyright information.

Even though works published after 1977 are all automatically copyrighted, that doesn’t mean that the copyright holder won’t let you use it, or charge a small license fee for its use. To discover the copyright holder, try looking at the metadata. (for more on metadata, see this article) The metadata may include vital pieces of information such as the author’s name and phone number, copyright registration, and license terms.

These are just a few ways to help figure out whether an image is in the Public Domain.  Do you have any other tips or suggestions? If so, please add them to using the comments form below.

 

About the author

Steve Schlackman

As a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing, Steve has a unique perspective on art and law. Should you have any questions on Intellectual Property contact him at [email protected] His photography can be seen online at Fotofilosophy.com or on display at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York City.

2 Comments

Click here to post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Orangenius

We built Orangenius to help creators succeed. Our comprehensive platform takes the guesswork out of the business of art, so you can focus on creating. Click to see how Orangenius is revolutionizing the creative economy.

JOIN FOR FREE

The Latest From Artrepreneur

  • A Recruiter’s Advice for your Video or Motion Design Reel

    Creative Circle recruiter Brooks Rowlett sifts through hundreds of motion design reels and video editor portfolios each week. Here, he shares his best advice for motion designers and video editors looking to land their next big gig. The post A […]

  • From Tattoo Artist to Brand Empire: The Rise of the Ink Mogul

    The savvy tattoo artist uses brand recognition to launch a multimedia business. These four artists have leveraged their underground celebrity status to build a brand empire, complete with product lines, book deals, and TV contracts. The post From […]

  • Exploring the Intersection of Art and Technology

    The advent of technology is re-shaping the practice of art. These educational institutions, artists, and startups are exploring art and technology's convergence in today's increasingly digital world. The post Exploring the Intersection of Art and […]

  • Work with an Artist Mentor to Get Your Career on Track

    Many of the world's most recognized artists sought inspiration and guidance from their peers. Gain insight into your practice and learn about the business of art by finding an artist mentor whose career aligns with your own vision for success. The […]

  • Why Artists Need to Make Copyright Registration a Priority

    Sharing, posting, and distributing your work online is easier than ever - but often times, visual artists find themselves dealing with online piracy issues as a result of that practice. Initiating a copyright registration routine can curb the […]

  • How Artists on Social Media Can Grow Their Following

    By sticking to the tenets of the social media pyramid, artists on social media can develop an engaged audience. The post How Artists on Social Media Can Grow Their Following appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • How [and Where] to Submit an Art Fair Application

    Submitting an art fair application doesn't have to be an arduous process. We break down which fairs are currently accepting submissions, and how you should apply. The post How [and Where] to Submit an Art Fair Application appeared first on […]

  • The Paperwork Behind Your Art Business [Part I]

    In this ongoing series, we'll review the various documents needed to get your art business up and running. First up: Crafting your artist proposal. The post The Paperwork Behind Your Art Business [Part I] appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • A Creative Career Coach Outlines a Strategy for the Working Artist

    Marc Zegans coaches artists planning the next move in their art careers. Here, he shares his proven approach for developing your practice as a working artist. The post A Creative Career Coach Outlines a Strategy for the Working Artist appeared first […]

  • How One Artist Uses Instagram to Land Consistent Illustration Gigs

    Illustrator Maria Luque's secret to landing a steady stream of illustration gigs? Just be consistent and post regularly on Instagram. The post How One Artist Uses Instagram to Land Consistent Illustration Gigs appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • Artists Who Failed – And Found Success Anyway

    Some of the world's most successful artists weren't always so revered. Meet five artists who failed to develop their art careers during their lifetime. The post Artists Who Failed – And Found Success Anyway appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • How Do Online Content Moderation Policies Treat Nudity in Art?

    As Facebook's online content moderation policies come under fire, we review creative platform Orangenius' policy on nudity in art. The post How Do Online Content Moderation Policies Treat Nudity in Art? appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • Self Employed? Five Ways To Get Into the Creative Habit

    Self-employed artists don't always leave room for inspiration. Boost productivity and get into the creative habit with these proven strategies. The post Self Employed? Five Ways To Get Into the Creative Habit appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]

  • A Creative in a Corporate Organization: Related Group’s Art Department

    In this ongoing series, we explore the creative roles available in the most unlikely of corporations. Our first installment talks to Patricia Hanna, the Art Director of Related Group. The post A Creative in a Corporate Organization: Related […]

  • Five Alternative Income Strategies for Independent Artists

    Independent artists shouldn't have to go hungry. We explore five alternative income streams to keep your art business on track. The post Five Alternative Income Strategies for Independent Artists appeared first on Artrepreneur. […]