The initial copyright holder is the author (or authors) of a work. The author can then transfer all or part of the copyright. Authors often transfer copyright to companies that publish or distribute their works. For more information about who qualifies as an author and how copyrights are transferred, consult Who Holds Copyright in our Copyright Basics guide.
Below are some general strategies for identifying copyright holders and their contact information. The subsequent pages of this guide contain permissions resources for specific types of works (Textual Works, Images, Musical Works & Sound Recordings, Films, and Dramatic Works). Those pages list collective rights agencies that may be able to license the work you want to use.
Remember that you do not need permission if you are using something that is not copyrightable or is in the public domain, or if you are using it in a way that does not implicate one of the rights of copyright holders or is permitted by a user’s right.
Copyright or contact information is often attached to or available with copies of the work. Published works usually contain copyright information. For books this often appears on the back of the title page. Forewords, prefaces, and other notes from the author(s) or the publisher may also contain clues about who is the author of the work for the purposes of copyright law, who holds copyright today, and how to contact them. If the work is unpublished or there are limited copies of it, the owners of physical copies of the work (such as archives, special collections libraries, or museums) may also have information that will help you to contact the copyright holder.
Writers Artists and Their Copyright Holders, commonly known as the WATCH File, is "a database of copyright contacts for writers, artists, and prominent figures in other creative fields." It is run jointly by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Reading Library. This is an excellent place to learn more about who might hold rights, particularly for well-known works.
Firms Out of Business (FOB), a companion to the WATCH file, is "a database with information about vanished publishing concerns, literary agencies, and similar firms." It is run jointly by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Reading Library. This is a good resource for tracing the history of publishing firms (and thus of the copyrights they hold).
Since only an author or copyright holder may claim copyright, the U.S. Copyright Office’s records of copyright registration and renewal can provide information about who holds copyright. Many works are not registered or renewed, but for those that are the Copyright Office has records of who registered or renewed the copyright. You can search records from 1978 to the present online in the Public Catalog. For works registered or renewed before 1978, consult the Stanford Copyright Renewal Database and the Catalog of Copyright Entries. You can also search the U.S. Copyright Office’s pre-1978 records in person in Washington, D.C. or pay the U.S. Copyright Office to search those records for you. The Public Catalog also includes transfers of copyright ownership that have been recorded with the Copyright Office. However, recording transfers is voluntary; many transfers are not recorded. For more information about recordation of transfers, consult Recordation of Transfers and Other Documents (PDF), a publication of the U.S. Copyright Office.
In the case of a human author, any copyrights the author holds at the time of her death will pass to her heirs, either via a will or, if the author had no will, through the intestacy laws of her state. Biographical information about the author, such as a biography or an obituary, will often be helpful in identifying those heirs. Even if the author’s heirs do not hold the copyright to the work, they may have information about who does.
If you can identify another person who used the work recently, consider asking them for contact information for the rightsholder.
A gallery that has exhibited or an auction house that has sold work by the author may have contact information for the author or the copyright holder. Even if the institution is unwilling to give out the contact information, it may be able to forward your request.
Others who might have information that would be useful to you include: