Most people are aware that using copyrighted material without permission is considered copyright infringement (except in cases like fair use). But how do you go about getting permission to use this material?
Depending on the type of work, and depending on the status of the artist, there are a few different ways to obtain permission.
Copyright Office’s Database
The copyright office’s website offers a searchable database, which contains the registration information of any copyrights that have been officially registered with the Library of Congress. You’ll of course need to know some basic information about the work you’re looking for in order to search for it: the artist, the title of the song or artwork, or better yet, the registration date and number.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that anything able to be copyrighted (a piece of music, for example, or a photograph or graphic design) is automatically copyrighted; registration is not necessary in order to be protected against infringement by copyright law.
What does this mean to you? It means that if you can’t find a listing in the copyright office, whether it’s because you don’t have enough information to search for it or because there is no listing for the work at all, you’ll need to expand your search for the copyright owner into other avenues.
Most artists these days have an online presence, whether that be an official sales website, a blog, or even a Facebook page. If you can’t find a particular song or image in the Library of Congress’s database, try contacting the artist directly to ask for permission.
Many musicians’ websites contain a section specifically devoted to copyrights and permissions; try looking at the very bottom of the page or along the sidebar. If there’s nothing obviously dedicated to permissions, try the Contact Us or About Us tabs, especially if the artist is an independent musician.
Of course, once an artist reaches a certain level of recognition, it may not be possible to contact him or her directly.
Performing Rights Organization
When a band is signed to a major label, part of the transition from independent to represented artist is usually to choose one of the three major performing rights organizations to handle licensing and permissions. In this case, the artist him- or herself is not the contact at all.
BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC are organizations dedicated specifically to managing their artists’ catalogs, acting as the party that deals with licensing their material. The movie and television industries know to contact the organization responsible for a particular artist in order to license their material.
You can do the same; just search each organization’s catalog until you locate your artist (many musicians list their performing rights organization on their websites) and contact the organization using the appropriate channel. Each of these organizations’ website has a Licensing department specifically dedicated to permissions requests.
What if I can’t ask for permission?
Sometimes, it’s just not possible to ask for permission. Perhaps the Library of Congress’s database doesn’t include contact information (it’s optional to include). Perhaps you don’t know the title of the work, or even the name of the artist (quite common in cases where a photograph or image was hosted improperly to begin with and even the website owner doesn’t know the origin).
Whatever the reason, you should never assume that because you couldn’t locate the copyright owner, you somehow have permission by default. Even if you’ve exhausted literally every resource you can find and still can’t come up with the copyright owner, other than limited exceptions like fair use, using a work without permission is copyright infringement.
Sure, if you couldn’t find the copyright owner, it may be unlikely that he or she is going to come out of the woodwork just to sue you for infringement. But such a lawsuit would be well within his or her rights. Is the risk worth it?
Sarah Kolb, Click&Copyright
Since 2000, Click&Copyright (proud member of the Legal Research Center, Inc. family of businesses) has helped thousands of small business owners, independent entrepreneurs, artists, and musicians to manage their intellectual property.