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When researching material for creating an educational or training activity, how can I find out whether a work is copyrighted?

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Some may think that as long as they don’t charge for a work, it’s all right to include copyrighted materials from others without permission. This is not true! To be safe, you always need to find out whether a work is copyrighted and ask for permission to use the content before including all of it or part of it in your own work.

The first thing to do is to thoroughly search the work itself to see whether a copyright symbol (©) or the word “copyright” is present anywhere. If you find either, then yes, that work is copyrighted. To include any of that content directly in your work as is, you need to first ask the author or owner for permission to use it.

Exceptions are if you are writing a parody of the work or summarizing it indirectly in a general way without direct quotes. Even then, there are gray areas about what may be allowed in certain circumstances. When in doubt, always seek knowledgeable legal advice about how to best proceed. If no copyright symbol is present on a website or print document, then look for author or owner information under the work’s title and in the headers and footers of the work. Of the source is on the Internet and it isn’t clear whether the content is copyrighted, try a search in the website’s properties or for the website’s domain name. If you can find the domain owner, that owner often has contact information for the Internet site’s administrator or author.

Copyrighted works from 1978 to the present can be located at the Library of Congress’s automated catalog at You can also search the print Catalog of Copyright Entries published in print from 1891 to `978 and on microfiche from 1979 to 1982. Copies of this catalog can be found in many U.S. libraries. Searching these resources yourself is free.

You can also ask the Copyright Office to search its electronic records. E-mail for more information. The fee for an electronic search is $41.25 for each half hour (half-hour minimum charge). The fee for a nonelectronic search is $165 per hour.

Linda R. Puetz, BA, BSN, RN, MEd

(October 2010)