Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. The ownership vests in the author or authors of the work, and registration is not required to secure these ownership rights. Likewise, the placement of copyright notice on a work (for example, © 2014 Nova Southeastern University) is not required, so you cannot rely on the fact that no copyright notice is present to assume the work is freely available for use. So, unless you are sure that the work is in the public domain, is available by a Creative Commons License, or clearly “fair use” as described by the copyright act, you should assume that the work is protected by copyright and that you will need to secure permission to use the work. Mere attribution of the source material is not a substitute for a proper copyright license. With limited exceptions, the rate and terms on which a license will be issued is subject to negotiations with the owner of the copyright.
Locating the Owner
The first stop in locating the owner should be the title page of the publication, or the case containing the DVD or CD. Even though copyright notice is not required, most owners placing their works in the stream of commerce do put copyright notice on their work. Even if this does not directly lead you to the owner (as with a journal or magazine which has merely licensed the content) they most likely know the identity and location of the owner. If that does not yield the information, one can do a search of the records of the U.S. Copyright Office, either by title or name of author. Remember that registration is not required, and if the author has sold their copyright, the “bill of sale” is also not required to be recorded in the copyright office records. If this does not bear fruit, you can make an inquiry with one of the copyright collective licensing agencies. These are businesses devoted to licensing copyrighted material on behalf of a large collection of copyright owners, such as the Copyright Clearance Center (for books and journals) or the Harry Fox Agency (for musical compositions).
Be sure to make your request far in advance of when you will need to use the material. The primary reason being if you cannot locate the owner, or the negotiations do not result in a license, you will need to choose something else as a substitute. Licensing agencies will normally respond to your request promptly, as this is their primary business. Others may take quite a while, especially if their licensing department is overwhelmed, under-staffed, or both. Your request should include:
- Your name, address, telephone number and email address
- Your title, position and institution’s name
- The date of your request
- The title of the work to be copied with a description and citation of that work
- A description of how the work is to be used, by whom and for how long
- A signature line for the copyright holder to sign, signifying that permission has been granted
Some works may contain materials—text, images and graphics—from multiple copyright holders and may require separate authorization from each one. This can slow down the process as well.
Once again, do not proceed in the absence of a license, unless you are positive the work is in the public domain, available through a Creative Commons License, or clearly “fair use.” A primer on the laws regarding fair use is available here.