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Copyright: Identifying and Locating Copyright Owners

An overview of US Copyright Law.

Why is Locating a Copyright Holder Important?

United States copyright law protects unpublished materials as well as published materials. If you wish to make more than fair use of an unpublished manuscript in a publication, you must determine whether the work has passed into the public domain and is no longer under copyright protection or find the copyright holder and get permission to use the material.

Identifying and Locating Copyright Owners

These sites outline tools and techniques for identifying and contacting copyright owners.

U.S. Copyright Office - Search Copyright Records - Search records of registered books, music, art, periodicals, and other works, and documents recorded by the U.S. Copyright Office since January 1, 1978. Includes copyright ownership documents.

How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work - Circular 22 in PDF format from the United States Copyright Office on how to investigate the copyright status of a work.

Finding the Owner - Columbia Copyright Advisory Office - This guide provides the basics on locating and contacting authors, publishers, and other copyright owners.

Locating U.S. Copyright Holders - From the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, this step-by-step guide for researchers outlines the process of identifying and locating copyright owners.

Getting Permission - From the University of Texas System, this is a detailed guide to searching for copyright owners and asking permission to use copyrighted works. This site includes information on textual works, as well as art, music, plays, movies, and foreign works. Also discusses unidentifiable or unresponsive owners.

Copyright Renewal Database - Stanford University - Search for copyright renewal records received by the US Copyright Office between 1950 and 1992 for books (Class A only) published in the US between 1923 and 1963.

Obtaining Permissions

Copyright Clearance Center - Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) serves as an intermediary between copyright holders and content users, facilitating the exchange of reuse rights and royalties for textual materials through its licensing services.

Model Permission Letters - Columbia Copyright Advisory Office - From the Columbia University Libraries Copyright Advisory Office, this site offers model letters to serve as a starting point for seeking formal copyright permission.

Sample Written Request for Permission - From the University of Texas System Crash Course in Copyright, a straightforward sample copyright permission letter is provided, adaptable to a variety of material types.

Many Works Published Before 1923 Are Now in Public Domain

U.S. Copyright Office

Miscellaneous Notes

Purchasing a Copyrighted Work: If you purchase a copyrighted work (hard copy), you are allowed to lend or sell the item since you have purchased it.  Digital copies are another topic.  Typically, you purchase a license to the product and are much more limited in what you can do with the digital copy.  For example, digital copies may have limitations and you typically cannot give a digital copy to someone else.

First Sale Doctrine: Codified at 17 U.S.C. § 109, provides that an individual who knowingly purchases a copy of a copyrighted work from the copyright holder receives the right to sell, display or otherwise dispose of that particular copy, notwithstanding the interests of the copyright owner.

DMCA: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, was an update to Copyright Law in order to adjust to digital works.  The ALA (American Library Association) considers the Act to be favorably tilted towards copyright holders. Basically, the DMCA gives more control to the copyright holder in terms of use of the content and limits use of the Fair Use Doctrine on works.

Orphan Works

"Orphan works" is a term used to describe works still under copyright for which the copyright owner cannot be identified, located, or contacted in order to ask for permission to use the work. The decision to use an orphan work without permission is a risk.  The sites below can help you assess that risk.

If You Cannot Find the Owner - Columbia Copyright Advisory Office - The Columbia University Libraries Copyright Advisory Office describes different types of orphan works and offers some possible solutions.

Orphan Works: Statement of Best Practices - This link is a PDF file containing the Society of American Archivists' "best practices regarding regarding reasonable efforts to identify and locate rights holders."