How do you find out who owns a copyright?

The person who owns the copyright in a work is called the “copyright holder.” 

Figuring out who this copyright holder is is the tricky part: it depends on the type of work, who made it, who it was made for, and whether it was sold. Often the copyright belongs to the person who made the work, known as the author. This is true particularly for non-commercial works. 

For example, if your friend draws a picture of you in his sketchbook, your friend is the copyright holder of the picture as soon as he draws it. If your friend rips the sketch out of the book and gives it to you, your friend still owns the copyright even though you own the only copy of it in the world. Therefore, if you want to contact who owns a copyright, a great place to start would be to contact the person who made the work.

It’s extremely common though, particularly for commercial work, that the copyright holder is different than the person who made the work. Generally, you have to determine who owns a copyright on a case-by-case basis:

 

  • Work for Hire. Because works that are made within the scope of a creator’s employment belong to the employer, the copyright might belong to the person or company who the work was made for
  • Assignment/transfer of copyright. The copyright holder may have sold or transferred the rights to someone else through an assignment. This often occurs with sound recordings musicians who are under contract with major record labels.
    The Harry Fox Agency
    is a great resource for looking up who owns a music copyright. When I type in, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” I find out that the popular Britney Spears song was written by Dido, M. Martin, and Rami, and that they transferred their rights to the publishers, WB Music and Universal Music. Watch out for this in books too: authors typically assign their rights to publishing company. You can look at the copyright page near the front of the book to find the copyright owner next to the © and the year the book was copyrighted.
  • No copyright owner. There may have been no copyright at all, such as in the case of works made by the federal government, or the copyright may have expired and the public might own it, known as public domain.

If these search methods don’t work, you can also hit up the Library of Congress, which catalogs books, photographs, maps, music, movies, newspapers, etc. Library of Congress work with the US Copyright Office to create a searchable database for works. For works published after 1975, you can visit http://cocatalog.loc.gov. You enter an author or title and see the registration number and the year that the copyright was registered. For older works, you can contact the Library of Congress directly and either pay them to do a search for you or do the search for yourself.



 

If you have any additional questions on how to look up who owns a copyright, feel free to contact New Media Rights via our contact form to find out whether you qualify for free or reduced fee legal services. We also offer competitive full fee legal services on a selective basis. For more information on the services we provide click here.

 





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