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Finding Copyrights and Trademarks for Free


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


   Originally published in The CyberSkeptic's Guide to Internet Research (June 2005).

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25 October 2005. Businesses increasingly have reason to conduct research related to copyrights or trademarks. The ever-more competitive business world makes protecting a company's intellectual property a key component to its success. Trademark-related research might concern clearing the name of a new business, product or service for use in commerce. It might involve monitoring new trademark applications, business filings and domain name registrations for potential infringements. Or, it might deal with the proper use of a mark. For example, "May I use my competitor's trademark on my own Web site to illustrate how our products differ?"

Copyright-related questions might also pertain to infringement concerns. Is it a violation of copyright if the design of another's product a dress, for instance inspires your company to use it as the basis for the design of a new skirt? Other copyright research might involve ownership, public domain status, plagiarism or licensing issues.

Ironically, as businesses find their need for this kind of information increasing, many tighten their research budgets. It's a good thing then that much of the information but not all of it is available for free.

There are several databases for conducting free copyright or trademark research. Unlike mega-research systems, such as LexisNexis or Westlaw, their scope is narrow. They answer specific questions those related to ownership or infringement, but generally not both. While they might serve adequately as the sole source of information for fact-finding inquiries, their role is more to supplement, rather than supplant, commercial research systems.

Copyright Research

A surprising number of free databases containing information related to copyrights exists. Many serve highly specific needs. For example, performing rights organizations, or groups that license the works of songwriters and music publishers, often make available databases of the copyrighted songs they license.

You could access free resources, such as the databases of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ACE), Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) or SESAC, Inc., to discover information related to the performance of a song. But be aware: The databases exist to provide licensing contact information, and the licensing entity might differ from the copyright owner.

Better known is the copyright records search utility at the U.S. Copyrights Office. Considered an experimental interface "for short, simple searches," it provides access to works registered since 1978. You may search by author, title, copyright owner (claimant), registration number (non-serial publications) or ISSN (serial publications). The "books" database also allows for combined field searching, which means it will search across fields to retrieve records matching the first keyword entered where it appears at the beginning of a field.

Researchers should note this important limitation. The search engine performs a simple character-string match on the first characters in a field. In other words, a title search for the keyword, wrath, finds titles beginning with the word, wrath. But it does not retrieve works entitled The Grapes of Wrath.

There are other limitations. The search engine does not combine keywords with Boolean (AND, OR, NOT) or proximity (W/n, NEAR) operators. Therefore, finding a specific work owned by a film production company might be difficult unless you know the exact title. According to Library of Congress documentation, queries "should take into account any possible variant forms of names and titles. For example, cross-references may not be provided for entries cataloged under Chaikovskii and Tschaikowsky. Non-English names such as de Mille and von Franz may appear under both the prefix and the surname. A corporate entity such as Walt Disney Productions may appear under that form or under Disney (Walt) Productions."

Another free resource worth noting is the Cease and Desist letters database at Chilling Effects. A joint project of several universities and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Chilling Effects collects Cease and Desist notices and analyzes the relevant legal issues. It reproduces the notices minus redacted private information with analysis similar conceptually to the way West writes headnotes for reported cases.

Trademark Research

Researchers will find several free databases at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The trademark databases provide access to pending and registered federal trademark records and documents. You will not find information pertaining to state, foreign or common law marks.

Particularly useful for preliminary research to clear a trademark for use, is the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS). TESS contains information about pending and registered marks, as well as trademarks that became inactive after 1984. TESS is remarkably current: Information about paper or electronic filings appears in the database in about one month or two weeks, respectively.

The agency offers three interfaces for searching TESS. Two of these Structured and Free Form require advanced search skills. New searchers, or searchers unfamiliar with this type of research, might prefer the "New User" or basic form.

As is often the case, however, the research question even more than the skill of the searcher should determine the interface selected. For example, suppose you want to discover the owner of a trademark. Use the basic interface to query words in the mark, or the exact trademark. Similarly, an exact trademark search using the basic interface might immediately rule out the use of a particular word or phrase as a trademark.

But more complex research requires the use of a more advanced search form. Suppose an exact trademark search using the basic interface yields no matching trademarks. If you want to conduct preliminary research to clear the mark, you should then switch to the Structured or Free Form interface.

The Structured form enables querying one or two fields in the database. For example, it should help you find records that match a word or phrase in the Basic Index (words in the trademark) and limited to a particular International Classification code. For research involving three combinations or more, you should select the Free Form.

While adequate for many types of trademark research, TESS has limitations, or more precisely, a few peculiarities. For example, it saves system resources by deactivating sessions where it detects no activity. In other words, if you fail to interact with TESS, it logs you off and loses the search results.

TESS supports three truncation symbols (*, ?, $), each of which performs differently. Limited to the mark fields (Basic and Translation Indexes), the asterisk finds characters to the left or right of the truncated term. Thus, the query *inform* retrieves trademarks containing words, such as informed or information, as well as disinformation or misinformed.

The dollar sign is also a left- or right-truncation symbol, but TESS documentation warns against using it in the Basic or Translation Indexes. Combined with a number ($n), it can limit the truncation to a certain number of characters. Thus, the query, yahoo$, in the owner field finds marks owned by Yahoo! Inc., whereas the query, yahoo, does not.

The question mark retrieves a single character, except when the character is a space. You may use it to the left or right of a character string, or inside a word. Thus, the query y??music finds the inactive mark, YOUMUSIC, but not the trademark, Y! MUSIC.

The USPTO does a good job of documenting this database's oddities. For best results, read the help section and perform several trial-and-error queries. If necessary, consult a research or trademark professional.

Other free trademark databases available at the USPTO's Web site include:

Three additional free resources are also worth noting. Who's Suing Whom: Patent, Trademark and Copyright Edition, by translation company InterLingua, Inc., helps you find patent, trademark or copyright cases pending in federal courts. It provides basic information about the cases. For a fee, you may retrieve the full-text court dockets.

Intellectual Property Rights Search (IPRS), by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, enables searching intellectual property rights recordations, or information about patents, trademarks and copyrights recorded by the agency.

LexisNexis' LexisONE service gives registered users free access to select federal and state case law. Use it to find mostly recent appellate level court decisions on intellectual property issues.

When To Use Commercial Research Services

Free databases, containing copyright- or trademark-related information, serve as useful tools for answering many factual questions. For example, does a trademark with the name, X, and a goods-and-services description similar to Y, already exist? Or, who holds the copyright for the book, Z? But questions requiring more in-depth research might warrant the use of more sophisticated commercial databases, or both free and fee-based sources.

The database at the Web site of the U.S. Copyright Office is a tool designed for use by the general public. Its character-string matching, non-Boolean search engine represents old technology with simplistic finding ability. While perfect for determining the owner of a particular work published after 1978, it chokes on non-exact queries. It cannot perform combination searches -- that is, queries that require the conjunction, disjunction or proximity of two or more terms.

The copyrights database available via DialogWeb, on the other hand, can handle complex queries. As is the case with the free tool, DialogWeb lets you browse records in the database, but it enables this feature for more fields. You may also combine and limit terms for more manageable search results.

Commercial services also simplify trademark research. Finding character-string matches of a trademark term with TESS, for instance, requires using asterisks on both sides of the word and searching it in two different indexes Basic Index and Translation Index. If you want to limit the query to a particular international classification code, you have to add a third component to the search.

DialogWeb's "Targeted Search" interface to Thomson & Thomson's federal TRADEMARKSCAN database, however, lets you enter "words containing" a certain trademark term. It provides a drop-down menu for selecting a relevant international classification code. It also identifies and describes the codes. Combining search terms simply requires entering information in the relevant search boxes.

The Bottom Line

Several useful free databases exist for conducting copyright or trademark research. While sometimes they represent a unique source for example, the Cease and Desist letters database at Chilling Effects mostly they provide a free alternative for answering straightforward questions. Conducting in-depth research, on the other hand, requires the kind of power and flexibility that a commercial service provides.

Other than TESS and LexisONE, the free tools do not help researchers answer infringement related questions. TESS's search commands and oddities may further require advanced searching skill. LexisONE contains no federal trial level cases. With the exception of the U.S. Supreme Court database, the case law is mostly current. Therefore, efficient, cost-effective searching for infringement related issues still, for the most part, demands use of the commercial services.


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Created: 25 October 2005
Revised: 9 May 2008 (no text revisions)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/finding_copyrights_trademarks.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com