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Locating U.S. Copyright Holders

The purpose of this document is to provide basic information about U.S. copyright law to researchers who need to identify copyright holders.

At the end of this document, there is a brief bibliography of print resources treating copyright issues.

Definitions.

Why is locating a copyright holder important?

What are the provisions of U.S. copyright law?

Does U.S. law protect manuscripts by non-U.S. authors?

Can a single work have different copyright protections?

Who grants permissions?

Where do I begin my search for a copyright holder who is not in the WATCH file?

A final note.


Definitions

manuscript -- any unpublished form of a creative work not intended for general distribution, including notes, holograph, typescript, galleys, page proofs as well as correspondence and diaries.

copyright -- a right granted by statute to the author or originator of a literary or artistic production that, for a limited time, invests the originator with the sole and exclusive privilege of multiplying copies of the work and publishing and selling them.

published -- a work is considered published if it has been offered for distribution or actually distributed to the public, whether by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending, with no explicit or implicit restrictions on the disclosure of its contents.

ownership rights -- rights that come with owning tangible physical property.

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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United States copyright law protects unpublished materials as well as published materials. If you wish to make more than fair use of an unpublished manuscript in a publication, you must determine whether the work has passed into the public domain and is no longer under copyright protection or find the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 manuscript. The steps below can help you track down copyright holders of both manuscript and nonmanuscript materials, such as audio tapes, photographs, works of art, and motion pictures.

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What are the provisions of U.S. copyright law?

In 1978, unpublished manuscripts, no matter when created, were accorded federal copyright protection for the first time. They received a fixed term -- the life of the author plus 70 years. The law included important grandfathering provisions that gave works that would have gone immediately into the public domain a reasonable term of continued protection (25 years). For example, an unpublished letter by George Washington received protection until January 1, 2003, even though Washington died in 1799. An unpublished letter by Dora Carrington (d.1932) also entered the public domain (in the U.S. only) on January 1, 2003. Copyright in an unpublished letter by William Faulkner (d.1962) will expire at the end of 2032, 70 years after his death.

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Does U.S. law protect manuscripts by non-U.S. authors?

The U.S. is party to international copyright agreements that assure writers in other countries essentially the same rights as U.S. writers. For most copyright purposes, the nationality and citizenship status of the author does not alter the nature of the copyright protection.

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Can a single work have different copyright protections?

Substantive textual differences between the manuscript and the commonly accepted published versions of a work may be protected by copyright. In general, given two versions of a work, one may be copyrighted and one may not be. Note however that the copyright in a later version does not cover any part of the earlier work, so those parts of an earlier public domain work contained within the later work are not protected by copyright and may be freely used.

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Who grants permissions?

Only holders of copyright interests or their authorized agents can give permission to publish or to quote from unpublished manuscripts under copyright. The "fair use" provision of the copyright law (section 107), however, does permit limited use of unpublished materials for a number of purposes, including scholarly and research use. The law, however, does not precisely define the extent to which an unpublished manuscript may be quoted or paraphrased.

Copyright ownership does not necessarily accompany physical ownership of a manuscript. An owner of the physical manuscript may assert certain proprietary rights in regard to the physical manuscript, for example permitting or denying access to the property. Note that the repository that owns the item may charge fees for publication (even if it may not own copyright in the work) in addition to any fees a rights holder might charge. This assertion of ownership rights, however, is distinct and separate from any copyright consideration affecting the manuscript.

For example, the fact that an archives such as the Ransom Center holds a physical document does not mean it also owns the copyright. Only when rights holders assign copyright in the work to a repository can that institution give you permission to publish. However, even when copyrights are transferred along with a collection, the repository may not receive copyright in all of the material. This is because rights holders can transfer only the copyrights they own, and in most cases donors will own copyright only in material they created. For example, donors would generally own copyright in photographs they took or in letters they wrote to others; however, they may not own (and therefore could not transfer) copyrights in photographs taken of them by someone else or letters written to them by others. Rights in works are also sometimes transferred to third parties, such as publishers, and are no longer owned by original creators.

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HOW TO LOCATE COPYRIGHT HOLDERS

Where do I begin my search for a copyright holder?

The WATCH file should be the first stop in your search for a copyright holder. Many American and European authors and other artists, living and dead, are included in the database. However, the file is not exhaustive by any means, and you may need to explore other sources of information. Here are some approaches to solving the problem:

Step 1. Ask the owner.

Step 2. Ask the Copyright Office.

Step 3. Ask other scholars.

Step 4. Examine acknowledgments and notes sections.

Step 5. Ask the author's publisher.

Step 6. Ask an author's society.

Step 7. Use genealogical sources.

Step 8. Write to the author's last known address.

Step 9. Search published references.

Step 10. Consult resources for orphan works.

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Step 1. Ask the owner.

The owner of the manuscript may also control the copyright. With increasing frequency, repositories and individual collectors attempt to obtain assignment of copyrights along with physical ownership of the manuscripts.

If the owner does not control the copyright, ask if he or she knows the name and address of the legal copyright owner or owners. Some repositories maintain files of estate addresses pertinent to the manuscripts they house. Most repositories are free to give this information to researchers. If one repository does not know the name or address of the copyright holder, another repository housing other papers by the same author may.

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Step 2. Ask the Copyright Office.

Because copyright in unpublished manuscripts often is not formally registered with the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, the Office's records are not always useful. For a fee, however, the Copyright Office staff will search the records of registrations and other recorded documents concerning ownership of copyrights and will provide a written report. (Circular 22, "How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work," is available from the Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20559, or online).

Send requests for searches by post to: Copyright Office GC/I&R/RRC, Attn: RCC, P.O. Box 70400, Washington, DC 20024; by phone (202-707-6850) or fax (202-252-3485); or by email to: copysearch@loc.gov

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Step 3. Ask other scholars.

Scholars conducting research on the same author may know the identity of the copyright holder. You can find such scholars through their publications, or through online searches.

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Step 4. Examine acknowledgments and notes sections.

These sections of published works by or about an author may cite the names of the copyright holder. Full addresses are seldom given, but you can write to the citing author or the permissions department of the publisher for more information.

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Step 5. Ask the author's publisher.

A publisher may be paying royalties on in-print works, especially when the author is still living, and may be able to provide the payee's address or forward a letter on a researcher's behalf.

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Step 6. Ask an author's society.

An organization devoted to a specific author may have published information about the copyright holder. For example, The Hemingway Society has published permissions procedures on its website. The WATCH Copyright Resources page provides links to author and artist organizations.

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Step 7. Use genealogical sources.

Genealogical sources, especially probated wills, can give the name and address of an author's heir, estate representative, or literary executor. For example, the publication The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Arlene Eakle and Johni Cerny (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Publishing Co., Rev. ed., 1997) has a comprehensive section on wills. Genealogical Research: Methods and Sources, edited by Milton Rubincam, (Washington, DC: The American Society of Genealogists, 1980,1983; 2 volumes) includes genealogy sources for Canada, Great Britain, and Europe.

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Step 8. Write to the author's last known address.

For recently deceased authors, a letter written in care of their last known address could reach a member of the immediate family or someone who has a forwarding address for an executor. An ad in the local paper or a letter to an author's literary agent or professional association could yield information.

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Step 9. Search published references.

The two most useful kinds of references are those that give addresses for authors and those that give location information for an author's papers.

For addresses:

  • James L. Harner's Literary Research Guide (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 5th ed., 2008) lists a number of source books, including Who's Who biographical dictionaries in specific regions and professions.

  • The Contemporary Authors Online database (Gale Research, available online through many academic libraries) is perhaps the best place to begin for scholars using literary manuscripts.

  • LiteraryMarketplace.com combines the resources of International Literary Marketplace (New York and London: R.R. Bowker Company) and Literary Marketplace (New York: R.R. Bowker Company). It provides U.S. and international listings under numerous headings, including "Literary Agents," "Book Trade and Allied Associations," and "Literary Associations and Societies." For example, Poets & Writers, Inc. (90 Broad St, Suite 2100, New York, NY 10004) maintains current address files for more than 9,000 authors.

  • The membership directory of CISAC (Confederation Internationale des Societes d'Auteurs et Compositeurs/International Confederation of Authors and Composers Societies, 1 rue Keppler, F-75116, Paris, France, http://www.cisac.org) contains addresses for more than 100 societies in more than sixty countries.

For collections of authors' papers:

  • "Guides to Manuscripts and Archives" in Harner's Literary Research Guide contains descriptions of sources on the location of manuscripts.

  • National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1959-). Publication of the Index to Personal Names in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections 1959-1984 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1988) makes the task of searching this resource much easier. NUCMC records are now in RLIN.

  • Contemporary Writers of the English Language. James Vinson and D.L. Kirkpatrick, eds. (New York: St. Martin's Press) contains information on the location of manuscripts, when known, for Contemporary Novelists, Contemporary Dramatists, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Foreign Language Writers, and Contemporary Literary Critics.

  • Twentieth-Century Writers of the English Language. James Vinson and D.L. Kirkpatrick, eds. (Detroit: Gale Research Company) contains information on the location of manuscripts, when known, for Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, Twentieth-Century Romance and Gothic Writers, Twentieth-Century Western Writers and Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Writers.

  • Archive Finder (ProQuest, available online through many academic libraries}, provides descriptions and finding aids for primary sources held in various archives and repositories. The database draws from ArchivesUSA, Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States (DAMRUS), the National Union Catalogue of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), and the National Inventory of Documentary Sources (NIDS) in the United States and the United Kingdom and Ireland.

  • Location Register of Twentieth-Century English Literary Manuscripts and Letters (London: The British Library, 1988; 2 volumes) is the printed version of a computerized union catalog of all twentieth-century literary manuscripts and letters by British literary figures that are available for public consultation in the British Isles. Selected information on U.S. holdings is included. Also available on RLIN. "Twentieth-century" includes all living British literary writers plus any who died after December 31, 1899. The word "literary" defines certain essayists, critics and biographers, as well as poets, dramatists and novelists. Minor as well as major writers are included. Photoduplicated or filmed collections of papers are listed alongside collections of original material. Expansion of the Location Register project's scope to include location information on manuscripts of British authors from 1700 through the nineteenth century is underway.

  • CANLIT, a computerized database developed by Queen's University Archives (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), has more than 350,000 items in MARC format for Canadian literary papers. You can get a printout of all or some entries on request, a microfiche main entry listing and a dictionary catalog key phrase index on microfiche. The University of Calgary also has participated in CANLIT and cataloged its papers of contemporary Canadian authors. Published guides to these collections are available from the University of Calgary Press.

  • Some states offer a single online database that searches finding aids, library catalogs, and the contents of primary source collections throughout the state. Examples include the Online Archive of California (OAC) and Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO).

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Step 10. Consult resources for orphan works.

If no other information can be found about a copyright holder for a work, it is often referred to as an Orphan Work. The Society of American Archivists' Intellectual Property Working Group has developed a document describing best practices that an individual can reasonably undertake to identify a copyright holder if that individual wishes to use a work in a manner that requires permission from the copyright owner. This document and other information about copyright can be accessed through the Intellectual Property Working Group's home page.

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A Final Note.

Taking these steps may not lead you to the author or the author's heir or estate representative. Making a good-faith effort to locate a copyright holder and having on file sufficient evidence (copies of letters, return postal receipts, etc.) that a reasonable effort was made to locate the copyright holder in a reasonable period of time may be important if litigation ensues from publication.

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Print Resources

Thorough discussion of changes in U.S. copyright law:

  • Fishman, Stephen. The Copyright Handbook: How To Protect & Use Written Works (11th ed., Berkeley: Nolo Press, 2011).

  • Fishman, Stephen. The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More (6th ed., Berkeley: Nolo Press, 2012).

  • Stim, Richard. Getting Permission: How to License & Clear Copyrighted Materials Online & Off (4th ed., Berkeley: Nolo Press, 2010).

Discussion of copyright tailored specifically to researchers, writers, and archivists:

  • Joseph Gibaldi. The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (3rd ed., New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2008).

  • Behrnd-Klodt, Menzi L. Navigating Legal Issues in Archives (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2008).

Current developments and interpretations of the copyright law:

  • Journal of the Copyright Society of the USA, online.

In addition, you should consult WATCH's links to Online Copyright Resources.

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