Media Law Question

How do I locate a copyright owner if I want to use the work?

If you want to use another person’s material which is still protected by copyright, and if there is no exception to copyright which covers the situation, you need to seek the permission of the right holder.

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 his 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 or owner of the rights in a 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.
  • Contact the creator’s publisher, agent, representative etc.
  • Carry out internet searches on various search engines.
  • Establish any family connection.
  • Use the WATCH website, (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.

Please note: that if you are having difficulty locating a right holder, you should keep good records of your efforts. (This will help to show that you have been trying to act in good faith.) If you are unsuccessful in tracing the right rights holder, and still wish to proceed with your project, you should do so with caution. It may be practical to set aside an appropriate fee for the use of the work in a special bank account, and, when you use the work, apply a statement indicating that you have tried to trace the right holder, but have failed to do so, and then invite any legitimate right holder to contact you.

You should bear in mind that should the right owner appear, they may consider suing you for infringement of their rights, and in such a case you would want to show the right holder, and perhaps the courts, that you have acted in good faith and have made reasonable efforts to try to track down the right holder.

To discuss any aspects of starting up in business, including Intellectual Property, Confidentiality, Trade Marks, Copyright, drafting business plans etc. please call us now on 020 8209 0166 and a member of our Media, Intellectual Property or Commercial team will be happy to assist.

This submission is based on the Intellectual Property Office’s guidance on Copyright.