Copyright Law Research Guide

This guide focuses on one area of intellectual property law, copyright law, and identifies print and electronic materials on the American federal copyright law system, focusing on the Copyright Act of 1976.


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Four Basic Methods

For a basic introduction to case law, see our Case Law Research Guide and/or refer to our Case Law video tutorial.

If you have a specific statute that you are researching, start your case law research by using the annotations (Notes of Decisions or Case Notes) and citator tools (Citing References or Shepard's Report) for that statute.

Absent a statute, there are four recommended methods for identifying cases:

  1. KeyCite/"Citing References" (Westlaw) and Shepard's/"Citing Decisions" (Lexis) on known case(s).  Both KeyCite and Shepard's are editorial citators that allow you to expand your research by looking at cases that have cited back to a known case.  You can also narrow by headnotes of most interest to you using these citators.
  2. Search using Digests (Headnotes & Key Numbers).  This is a very productive way of finding good cases. It will require you to identify the relevant Key Number(s) for your issue.  For more information, see Digests, Headnotes, and Key Numbers on our Case Law Research Guide.
  3. Keyword Searching. Without using a carefully-designed advanced (terms & connectors) search, this is often the least effective way to find cases because it depends on matching your search terms precisely with the terms used in the court decision, which is akin to "a stab in the dark."  When keyword searching, consider limiting your search to only the synopsis and digest (headnote) fields. This often proves to be more productive than searching the entire text, because it focuses your search only on the major issues of the case as described in the headnotes. (You can restrict your searches to databases containing only copyright case law using Lexis' Copyright Cases DatabaseWestlaw's Copyright Cases Database, and Bloomberg Law's Copyright Landing Page.)
  4. Secondary Sources. Any source on the Secondary Sources page of this guide will include citations to relevant cases.  Once you've found a case that is on-point, you can use citators and digests (above) to find others.  (If you have not already used a secondary source, such as a treatise, it is generally strongly suggested that you begin your research there rather than immediately looking for laws and cases directly.)  Some specific secondary sources that may be useful to you in finding case law are also listed below:


Some specific sources for finding copyright cases include: