Finding the Owner

If you are seeking to use a copyrighted work, you may have to obtain permission from the copyright owner. The owner may be the original creator of the work or that person’s employer. The original author may also have transferred the copyright to a publisher or some other party. In some instances, you may contact the owner directly. In other cases, you can secure permission on behalf of the owner by contacting an industry licensing agency or a publisher. Sometimes, the copyright owner may require a fee or impose other conditions. You have to decide if the cost and conditions are acceptable, and you should feel free to negotiate.

In most cases, the quest for permission will go smoothly, and may demand only time and bother. However, some situations become complicated, especially if you cannot locate the owner or get a response.

Keep in mind that you might not need permission if:

  • your use is within fair use or another copyright exception;
  • the work is not protected by copyright at all; or
  • your use is within the terms of a license agreement, including a Creative Commons license from the author.

Used under a Creative Commons BY license from the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University, Kenneth D. Crews, director.

Identifying the Owner

Identifying the copyright owner is usually easy, but sometimes it is the most challenging part of securing copyright permission. In cases involving common materials such as books, articles, music, and photographs, the copyright owner can be anyone from the original creator of the work to the original creator’s heirs or the publisher. The first source for identifying the copyright owner is the copyright notice on the work, which often looks like this: Copyright © 2010, XYZ Corporation.

Another important source is the registration of the claim of copyright with the United States Copyright Office. However, this method will not cover all works or all transfers of copyright because authors do not have to register their works in order to qualify for copyright protection. For information about searching registration records, see

Searching copyright registrations and renewals can be crucial for identifying likely owners and for determining whether a work is still protected or is in the public domain. 

A simple search on the Internet for titles, authors’ names, publishers, excerpts of text, or lyrics can also produce useful information about the work. Many organizations can help identify the owner of a copyright and can also contact the copyright owner or grant permission on behalf of the owner.

Because the law does not require a copyright notice or registration, and because the original owner may have transferred the copyright, sometimes none of the above methods will take you to the current copyright owner. In that event, you may simply need to contact any person associated with the work, such as the author, publisher, or benefactor, and ask about the copyright status and ownership of the work.

Contacting Authors

If you can identify and locate an author, you have a clear starting point. Begin with the easiest avenues for locating that person. A simple Internet search can provide direct contact information or connections through a university or other employer.

Benefits of Contacting Authors

  • Contacting the author puts you in direct touch with the source of the work, providing an opportunity to ask questions, get insights, and gain information about the work. Additionally, authors may be less likely than publishers to charge fees for the use of their material.

Drawbacks of Contacting Authors

  • The author of the material has transferred the copyright to a publisher or another party and may not even know that he or she no longer holds the copyright. Therefore, the most important source for the information you need may be the publication agreement.  Be proactive and ask the author about the terms of any contracts, especially publication contracts, related to the work.
  • If the author has died, the copyright does not end upon death. You may have to find and contact the author’s heirs to determine who inherited the author’s copyrights. For more information, see Complex Searches.

Contacting Publishers

A published work will often include the publisher’s contact information. Because many publishers are relatively easy to find, this option is compelling. Determining whether the publisher holds the copyright usually depends on the terms of the contract with the author, so be sure to ask the publisher if it in fact holds the copyright.

Benefits of Contacting Publishers

  • Publishers often have contact information and well-established systems for granting copyright permissions. Search the publisher’s website for a reprint or permissions office (e.g., the New York Times and Dow Jones Publishers).
  • Many publishers routinely take a transfer of the copyright from authors, and you can sometimes find the standard publication agreement on the publisher’s website. If the publisher is one that routinely takes the copyright, then permission from the publisher will probably be most reliable.

Drawbacks of Contacting Publishers

  • Publishers may limit the permission to only specific uses of the material, such as a narrow project or a limited time. They are also more likely than authors to charge a fee for your use.

Used under a Creative Commons BY license from the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University, Kenneth D. Crews, director.