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University of Cambridge > CARET > Intellectual Property and Copyright in the Digital Environment

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How do I find out who owns the copyright of a work?
Normally a published work will include a copyright notice giving details of the copyrightholder(s). Where there is no copyright notice, if there are publisher or author details you should contact the author or publisher and check the copyright in the work.  If you cannot trace the publisher, or if they have gone out of business, then you will have to trace the author, his or her literary agent or any descendants if the author is dead. Again, find out whether there are any works by the author in print and contact the publishers of those books - they should be able to put you in touch with the principle copyright holder for the author. If, however, there is nothing in print by the author, there are some organizations that may be able to help you trace the author or find out more information about the copyright holder. 
A useful online resource is WATCH (Writers, Artists, and Their Copyright Holders), which maintains a database of copyright holders and contact persons.  The majority of the database contains the names and addresses of copyright holders or contact persons for authors and artists whose archives are housed, in whole or in part, in libraries and archives in North America and the United Kingdom.  The database is available at Some uses are subject to collective licensing and the licences may be obtained from a collecting society. These organisations may be able to help you identify the right owner even if they cannot give a licence.
If none of the interest groups or online databases knows or represents the author of a particular work then you should research the author of the work, and, if different, the copyright owner. See Who owns copyright? for more information.  Tools to use would be Internet searches, telephone directories and directories of authors. You could also contact the publisher (if known). If the copyright owner still remains unknown at this point then it might be worth putting an advert into a trade journal or a national newspaper asking for the information.  This helps to demonstrate that all possible avenues have been explored. 
Other groups and databases include:
Other ideas for tracing the copyright holder include: writing to archivists responsible for collections of the author’s papers; writing to biographers or other scholars who have worked on the author; checking the acknowledgements of published works about the author; trying author searches on the World Wide Web; sending a letter to the author’s last- known address; checking authors’ directories in libraries (e.g. Contemporary Authors published by Gale Research). 
If all these methods fail, then you have to decide whether to reprint the work with the risk that the copyright holder will later find out and object. If you choose this route, you must state in the acknowledgements section that you have made every effort to trace the copyright owner and that anyone claiming copyright should get in touch with you. You could need to pay a fee (for the use you have already enjoyed) if this happened, although this is unlikely where you have made thorough efforts to locate the copyright holder.  Be sure to keep a record of your enquiries.
Information current as at 12 September 2005.