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17D Research into copyright status

Where to Look in the Law

1909 Act: §45
1947 Act: §31
1976 Act: §§704-708

CFR: § 201.1(a)(4) Search of records.

Copyright Office Publications for Laymen

Circular 22 “How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work”
Circular 23 “Copyright Card Catalog and the Online File”
Circular 6 “Obtaining Access to and Copies of Copyright Records and Deposits”

“Two search methods for the Internet are available: an easy-to-use web-based one, which is recommended for first-time and occasional users, and another, for faster and more advanced searches, which requires the use of Telnet. Initial access for both is available via the Copyright Office website.” (Information Circular 6)

What the Courts Ruled


Stein, et al vs Jerome H. Remick & Co.

USCC SDNY (1-14-1910)

“It is not necessary that the defendant should have intended to violate the copyright of the plaintiff.  He had means of knowledge from the copyright office that the song had in fact been copyrighted; and he, like any one else, took his chances when he published the song without any inquiry.

“Nor do I find any difficulty in deciding that Roman numerals conform to the notice prescribed by the statute.  Roman numerals are a part of the language of the country.  They are constantly in use upon monumental architecture of all sorts and for serial purposes upon books […]  If the letters were written out in words, it would certainly be a compliance.”


Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation [and ten other movie production companies] vs Thomas W. Dunnahoo, dba Thunderbird Films

USCA 9th Cir. (2-2-1981) ¤ 637 F.2d 1338, 209 USPQ 193

Tom Dunnahoo’s company Thunderbird Films sold reproductions of films believed to be in the public domain.  Buyers would order 16mm and Super 8 reproductions.  (This was before homevideo became dominant.)  Thunderbird did not sell the prints made under the auspices of the studios but rather copies which Thunderbird contracted to have made in labs from the negatives that Thunderbird duplicated from positive prints.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contended that Dunnahoo copied a film on which MGM had a valid copyright.

“Dunnahoo’s argument… is that The MGM Story did not have copyright protection because his 16 millimeter print of The MGM Story did not have affixed a copyright notice.  The issue with respect to this particular work is whether Dunnahoo’s print was a publication authorized by MGM, because only authorized publications must carry a copyright notice in order to maintain copyright protection for the work.  Dunnahoo did not even attempt to make a showing in the district court that his print had been released with the authority of the copyright owner, MGM.  He simply made the unsupported assertion that the 16 millimeter print in his possession which he obtained from a collector in Canada was an original release print.  He admits that he did not check with the Copyright Office about the copyright status of The MGM Story, or with MGM to discover whether it had ever authorized the distribution of the particular print in question even though he knew that MGM was a party to [a consent decree with Dunnahoo after his previous infringements].  The distributor, on the other hand, did introduce into the record evidence showing that the print in question was not an authorized publication.  A declaration of MGM’s legal counsel asserted that MGM had neither made nor released a 16 millimeter print of the motion picture.”

Dunnahoo was already under a Judgment Pursuant to Stipulation which enjoined him from copyright infringements beyond those he committed up to 1972, so his conviction in this case (which involved three films) resulted in his having to pay damages of $40,000 to the studios with which he entered his decree.

(The same trial found Dunnahoo guilty of infringing two additional movies, on grounds different than the aspect discussed here.  One of these is summarized under copyright notice: placement.)

illustration: listing for The MGM Story as it appeared in a catalog supplement mailed to Thunderbird customers.  Obviously, Dunnahoo or his copy-writer had difficulty with spelling and fact-checking.

Cases Summarized in Other Sections

Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. vs Jerry Vogel Music Co. (launch this) discusses what a person looking up the copyright would find and that he would be given reason to believe the song was protected.

National Broadcasting Company, Inc. vs Jonathan Sonneborn, dba Reel Images and dba Video Images, and Reel Images, Incorporated (launch this) mentions that an infringer had conscientiously sought copyright registration information from multiple sources.




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© 2007 David P. Hayes