Questions about Copyright, Public Domain, and Fair Use abound in the arts. Fortunately, the fine folks at the American Library Association (ALA) have our back and have developed interactive tools to help us get a handle on these questions. These tools, as well as the code to embed¹ them in a website, are available on the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy website.
The easiest tool to use is the Digital Copyright Slider which gives you a quick summary of whether a work is in the public domain or not.
However, most people need more specific detail when researching copyright questions which is where the Copyright Genie comes in. The Genie guides you through a series of questions to provide a more specific answer. However, you will need to know more specific information about the conditions under which a work was published.
The final tool I wanted to mention, the Fair Use Evaluator, provides the least definitive answers because fair use is so vague and often requires courts to make a final determination. The tool creators advise “Consider these results only as a general indicator of fairness, which should always be validated by considering all factors holistically.” The tool is designed to give you a relative sense of where your proposed use stands on a scale of definitely infringing and permitted fair use.
Perhaps most valuable is that it produces date stamped documentation of your concept that you can support a claim that you pursued your use with a good faith understanding that it did not infringe. (This assumes you executed your concept as documented.)
According to the ALA website:
When we act in good faith, reasonably believing that our actions are fair use, in the unlikely event we are actually sued over a use, we may not have to pay statutory damages, even if a court finds that we were wrong. [link to law]
The ALA web page also includes tools to help libraries and educators determine if they can reproduce a work without permission from the copyright holder which may be of interest if your organization is involved with in those areas.
¹Embed code won’t work if Adobe Flash is not supported