A copyright, or aspects of it, may be assigned or transferred from one party to another creating a “license to use.” One very common example of copyright licensing is when a musician records an album for a record company, and agrees to transfer all copyrights in the recordings to the record company in exchange for royalties and other forms of compensation.
For general licensing information, please visit the Copyright Office’s licensing guide. For licensing information for specific types of works such as music, books, photography, and motion pictures, please visit any of the following licensing resources from members of the Copyright Alliance:
Unless an exception to copyright law applies, such as fair use, permission to use a particular work is generally established through copyright licensing. There are numerous resources available to help answer your basic licensing questions, including instructions on how to request licenses for various works. Below is a compilation of information on how to license particular works including publications, music, photographs, software and motion pictures.
There are six types of Creative Commons licenses:
Attribution – ShareAlike;
Attribution – No Derivatives;
Attribution – NonCommercial;
Attribution – NonCommercial – ShareAlike; and
Attribution – NonCommercial – No Derivatives.
The Creative Commons form licenses are particularly useful for people who want to share their work as broadly as possible on the Internet. Rights granted are broad and are intended to facilitate sharing as well as mashups and derivative works. Although some creators find Creative Commons licenses useful for expanding access to their works, this may not be the appropriate approach to take with works you think may have a commercial value you may be interested in exploiting now or in the future.
As long as the use of the work is consistent with the license, a Creative Commons licenses attaches to the work and authorizes everyone who comes in contact with the work to use it according to the terms of the license. This means that if Charlie has a copy of your Creative Commons-licensed work, Charlie can give a copy to Susan and Susan will be authorized to use the work consistent with the Creative Commons license.
Finally, because Creative Commons is a non-profit organization, and not a licensing entity, tracking of uses to ensure consistency with the license grant and enforcement against any breaches is up to the copyright owner electing to use the Creative Commons license. This is in contrast with some other licensing entities and collecting societies that license specific uses of the work of their members for particular terms and are responsible for monitoring and ensuring compliance with license terms, and collecting and distributing royalty payments to the authors.
How do I find out who owns the copyright so I can obtain a license?
As first step you should consult the copyright notice on the copy. This may appear the copy itself or on packaging containing the copy. Any documentation that comes with the copy may also be help you determine the identity of the owner. If you have a photocopy or other reproduction that does not contain a notice of copyright or any other information that indicates ownership, you may try to locate an original copy of the work. The absence of a copyright notice does not mean that the work in question may be freely copied.
Because copyright ownership can be transferred, you should understand that your copy may not identify the current copyright owner. As a first step you can consult the publisher of the work who may be able to refer you to the current owner. For unpublished works, permission to copy can usually be obtained directly from the creator of the work.
The U.S. Copyright Office maintains records of registered works by author and title, some of which may be searched online. More information can be found in the Copyright Office Circular 22 - How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work, or by calling the Copyright Office at (202) 707-9100.
I requested permission from the copyright owner but have not heard back. Can I use the material anyway?
No. If you asked for the copyright owner’s authority to use his copyrighted material but have not heard back you cannot assume that the copyright owner would not object. The copyright owner has no affirmative duty to respond to requests. However, you may want to make sure you have the correct contact information for the copyright owner or wait a bit longer for a response because most copyright owner are more than happy to license their works to others and, in fact, some may be overloaded with requests.