Complex Searches

In most situations, the search for the copyright owner is reasonably clear, but occasionally you encounter a difficult case. Below are a few scenarios that illustrate the challenges you might encounter and how you might overcome them.

When you are successful, the quest is rewarding. But sometimes you discover that you are dealing with an "orphan work," a work that is most likely protected under copyright, but you simply cannot identify or locate the copyright owner. What happens then? See If You Cannot Find the Owner for more information.


Determining the Copyright Holder of a Series of Essays

Henry was a well-known author of many essays, and a series of his essays on political issues was published in 1936 by a major city newspaper. A scholar working today would like to reprint the essays in a book. By 1947, the newspaper that published Henry’s work was failing, and it was acquired and merged into a competing newspaper in the same city. That successor company, however, itself went out of business in 1982. The assets of the corporation, including any copyrights it held, were sold at auction. Because the newspaper was well-established in a major city, finding news accounts about its sale was relatively easy. The buyer was identified in the articles as an oil company based in Florida. Through various business directories, the Florida company was easy to locate, and a call to the in-house legal counsel at the company confirmed that indeed the company purchased the copyrights, had not sold them in the meantime, and would be pleased to give necessary permission. Despite these positive developments, copyright ownership is actually still uncertain. No documentation from the 1930s remains to verify whether Henry actually transferred the copyrights to the newspaper. The rights may have remained with Henry and now belong to his heirs. The permission from the Florida company appears proper but might ultimately not be valid. In such situations, the researcher is wise to secure permission from the company and from the estate of the author, if at all possible. Realistically, if you are able to obtain permission from only one likely owner, most publishers will be satisfied.

Locating the Author of Unpublished Correspondence

A historian is writing a book and would like to quote from unpublished correspondence written in the 1950s. The quotations are beyond the limits of fair use, so the historian needs permission from the copyright owner. He has determined that the writer was in specific locations during the 1950s, but the writer is not listed in current city directories. The historian probably needs to find local newspapers from the 1950s to the present and search for obituaries and death notices. Not only is the quest a burden, but any notice may at best lead to family names and the need to start the search anew for those individuals. Moreover, many major newspapers are readily available online, but papers from smaller communities or papers from before about 1980 are difficult or impossible to locate and search. If the historian is fortunate to find a name and address to track, he might also use "reverse directories," such as the Haines Criss-Cross. These sources are used by bill collectors and private investigators to track names associated with individual addresses. Librarians who have used these sources lament that the process is labor intensive and can result in an utter dead end. Reverse directories are available in few libraries. One of the ironies of these situations is that once you find the right person, you need to introduce yourself and your project, explain that the person may be the copyright owner, and then request permission.

Obtaining Permission to Use Home Movies

A filmmaker is preparing a documentary about American life, and she finds some wonderful footage of film made by Bob, a private individual, with his home movie camera, in the 1960s. Filmmakers have particularly acute problems with "orphan works," because most home movies lack any notice or even a descriptive label (see the University of South Carolina’s Orphan Films Symposium site for more information). Bob died long ago, and searches of newspaper death notices do not list any family members. The quest for the copyright owner of such works might require contacting the court where Bob’s estate was probated. If his will is available in the court file, it should disclose the beneficiaries of Bob’s estate. As a private individual with a home camera, Bob was most certainly not thinking about copyright, and the possibility is remote at best that his will mentions anything about copyright. As a result, the copyrights probably devised with the residue of the estate. Assuming that a beneficiary is named, and can still be found, the filmmaker will then need to contact the beneficiary and explain that he or she inherited copyrights that were probably never listed in the probate estate.

Finding the Owners of a Set of Romance Comic Books

Popular in the 1950s and 1960s, romance comic books told tales of love and adventure, happiness and sorrow in high-graphic fashion. They offer fascinating insights into social relationships, artistic style, and pop culture. The library would like to build a digital library by scanning images of the comic books and posting them on the Web. Several publishers issued the comic books, and the quest to identify the current owners could take several tracks: (1) Some publishers are still doing business under the same names; they are easy to identify and locate. (2) Because of the pop interest in these comics, Wikipedia can be a source of helpful information. Wikipedia, for example, reports that one publisher, Fawcett, was sold to CBS in 1977, then to Ballantine in 1982, which belonged at that time to Random House. That last company continues in business today, and the permission inquiry would probably go there first. (3) Another publisher went through a similar sequence of acquisitions, but a Google search of the names leads to the tantalizing finding that only some of the properties were transferred in one of the acquisitions. The library seeking permission should place a call to the existing company to confirm whether the titles in question were acquired or were left with the seller. (4) Yet another publisher went out of business shortly after the owner died in the mid-1950s. Librarians have searched for the publisher in current business indexes, but have not found any indication of its current existence or who might have acquired the copyrights.


Most Recent Revision: 061209


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