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Locating a copyright owner

If you wish to use someone else's material which is still protected by copyright, and if there is no exception to copyright which covers your desired use, you need to seek the permission of the right holder before you can legally use the material in question.

You may therefore need to consider who owns or controls the rights in the material. This person could be:

  • the creator of the material or their heirs, or
  • the creator's employer, or
  • anyone else to whom the rights in the material have been sold, or otherwise transferred or licensed, or
  • a collective licensing society which has been asked to collect fees on behalf of the rights holder.

You should remember that as copyright is an automatic right, there are no registers that can be checked to locate the creator or right holder in a work. There are though organisations representing copyright owners who may be able to assist you in tracking them down.

The copyright protection for many works will continue for 70 years after the creator of the work has died. The rights will have transferred to someone else, perhaps through testamentary deposition (a will) or by inheritance. If there was no will, or if the creator of the work has not specified where the rights in the material should go, then the normal rules of inheritance will apply. (These rules are not specific to copyright, and advice should be sought from a legal adviser.)

When a company goes out of business or ceases trading, any copyright it may own continues for the customary copyright duration. The rights will be part of the assets of the company, and may be sold or otherwise dealt with by the company or its liquidator, etc.

If you wish to trace a right holder, there is no official body that can help you directly, but you could try the following:

  • Contact the appropriate collecting society (see the above link).
  • Contact the creator's publisher, agent, representative etc.
  • Carry out internet searches on various search engines.
  • Establish any family connection.
  • Use the WATCH External Link file, (Writers, Artists and Their Copyright Holders) - a joint project of the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom, and the University of Austin, Texas, USA. They hold a list of some right holder contacts for some authors and artists.
Use of a copyright protected work without its owner’s permission may be a civil infringement and/or a criminal offence depending on the circumstances. If you cannot trace the copyright owner you should take legal advice before using any material that may be in copyright.