Working with Copyright–Protected Materials in a Digital Environment






Identifying Copyright Holders

Our first step in obtaining copyright clearance is determining to the best of our ability who, or what entity, holds copyright to the document we wish to display. When the document's source is a recognized publishing entity, such as a book publisher, a magazine, or a newspaper, we begin with the assumption that the publisher holds the copyright. We confirm, clarify, or revise this assumption according to what we learn in our initial contact with the entity we first assume to be the document's source.

Documents that have ambiguous sources or are not cited must be researched on a case-by-case basis. Basic clues may help identify the origin of the document.  For example, the copyright permissions analyst might identify the typographic style of a particular newspaper and verify publication of the article in question using periodical indexes.  The analyst might identify the original producer of a film to verify the source of press kits or souvenir materials, and so on.

Researching Contact Information

Our next step in the permissions process is doing the research necessary to establish the contact information (address, phone number, and e-mail) for the assumed copyright holder. We enter the obtained information in our digital rights management database.

To facilitate workflow, we currently maintain digital rights management data in two information systems. The first is a Filemaker Pro database from which we produce permissions packets and track in-progress actions on securing rights. The second is the CineFiles database, a Sybase SQL database, where a table is populated by migrating pertinent data from the Filemaker Pro database at regular intervals.

Contact information research most often involves an Internet search for an organization's website, where locating an appropriate e-mail address and/or a phone number is usually fairly straightforward. If necessary, we consult information sources such as the masthead of a newpaper or the back of a book's title page to help identify the publisher's full name and address or location.

Researching U.S. Copyright Office Records

One can also use the services of the U.S. Copyright Office to research the copyright status of a work.

Their records are open for inspection and search by the public. In addition, the Copyright Office offers a record search service at the hourly rate of seventy-five dollars for each hour or fraction of an hour. For information on searching the Copyright Office records concerning the copyright status or ownership of a work, see Circular 22 "How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work," and Circular 23, "The Copyright Card Catalog and the Online Files of the Copyright Office." (These are available on the Copyright Office website

Copyright Office records cataloged from January 1, 1978, to the present are available for searching in machine-readable form, including registration and renewal information and recorded documents. This search feature is available on the Copyright Office website cited above.

"How to Investigate the Copyright Status of the Work," Circular 22 published by the U.S. Copyright Office, offers several cautionary pieces of information concerning the limitations of copyright searches through their office. For example, before 1978, unpublished works were entitled to protection under common law without the need for registration. For later works, registration can be made at any time during a long period of twenty-eight years or more. For more information, consult the publication and/or website.

Rights and Permissions Companies and Consultants

Organizations and companies exist whose business is to clear copyright for use by various parties. One of the largest among these is the Copyright Clearance Center, a not-for-profit company established in 1978 at the suggestion of Congress. The mission of this company is to provide copyright owners and users of copyrighted materials with an efficient means for the exchange of permissions and royalties. The Copyright Clearance Center acts as an agent for thousands of registered publishers and hundreds of thousands of authors and creators. Information is found on their website,, where a specific section addresses the needs of those in academia and libraries.

There are also many individual consultants, companies, and attorneys who can be hired to research copyright status and/or obtain clearances. Many libraries and other institutions offer contact information for them, and Wweb searches are also a good way to locate such researchers.