Most of the chapters in this book discuss when and how to seek permission from a copyright owner when using a copyrighted work. But what if you don’t know who owns the copyright or how to find the owner? This chapter explains how to conduct a very specific type of research: finding information about copyright ownership and validity. This information is usually contained in U.S. Copyright Office and Library of Congress records, on copyright registrations, assignments, renewals, and related documents. This chapter explains how to search these documents, including how to gather information to prepare for your searches.
It’s possible you may not have to perform copyright research. You may be able to locate all the copyright information you need through other sources. However, if you seek permissions on a regular basis, there may come a time when you will have to trace copyright ownership (known as “the chain of title”), determine the first date of publication, or find out if copyright for a work has been renewed.
Before walking you through the basics of copyright research and approaches, this chapter begins with answers to some common questions regarding copyright ownership and transfers.
This chapter does not cover other types of research such as locating stock photos or private databases of art or music. For more media-specific research, review the relevant chapter that covers the type of media you seek (see Table of Contents).
Copyright Office records are not always conclusive. Records of the Copyright Office and Library of Congress are helpful for locating ownership information and determining copyright status. Unfortunately, these records don’t always show the whole picture because filing copyright registration and assignment (transfer of copyright ownership) documents is not mandatory. Because you don’t have to file these documents to own a copyright, there may not be a Copyright Office record regarding a particular work.
Despite this fact, it is still worth your while to search the Copyright Office and the Library of Congress—the largest repositories of copyrighted materials in the United States. In addition, even if you can’t find records of ownership, your research will demonstrate that you acted in good faith and are an “innocent infringer” in the event that you are later sued for an unauthorized use, which will limit any damages you may have to pay.