You can obtain ownership rights of a copyright by negotiating a copyright transfer or assignment for a fee. Alternatively, and more commonly, you can obtain a license to use, but not own, a copyright-protected work, such as a book, a song or even a film, for some fee arrangement. In the U.S., works are protected by copyright as soon as they are created and fixed in a tangible form. You have to get permission from the copyright holder to use the work or purchase the copyright, regardless of registration.
Find out who owns the copyright. The copyright holder for the work may be the creator or a third party. Check the copyright notice on the product to verify who the copyright holder is. If you still do not know who the owner is, you can contact the U.S. Copyright Office to conduct a search for you or conduct your own search on the copyright office’s website or in person at its location.
Read More: What Is the Correct Form for a Copyright Notice?
Contact the copyright holder. You can call the owner directly to discuss your purchase of the copyright. Explain that you want to purchase the copyright. If the owner does not agree to an outright purchase of the copyright, discuss licensing options. Follow up with a letter containing specific information that reflects your discussion.
Get permission. Negotiate with the copyright owner to either transfer the copyright to you for a set fee or to license the work to you for use but not ownership. Be sure to get the arrangement in writing. Make sure the terms are fair and clear, and that you have obtained all the rights you need to make use of the copyright as you plan to. Sign the agreement and make arrangements to pay the fees. You may need a lawyer to draft or negotiate the license or transfer agreement for you.
Record a copyright transfer or license with the U.S. Copyright Office. Recording is not required, but it can be useful to put others on notice about the change in ownership or license. The copyright office does not have an official form for a copyright transfer or license, but a signed copy of the agreement as well as a sworn statement of authenticity may be filed.
In the agreement that grants you the copyright or grants you a license to use the copyright material, be sure to have an indemnification clause. An indemnification clause means that the other party will defend you if a third party makes a copyright infringement claim against you for using the work.
Under the "fair use" doctrine of U.S. copyright laws, you can use minimal portions of a copyright-protected work for limited purposes such as critical reviews and academic instruction. What qualifies as fair use depends on all of the circumstances. You may want to consult with an attorney to determine if your use qualifies as fair use.
If the copyright for a work has expired, the work is considered to be “in the public domain,” and you can use that work for free, no permission necessary. Check with the copyright office to determine if a copyright has expired.
Based in the Washington, D.C. area, Angela Floyd is an intellectual property, consumer and business law attorney. Floyd holds a Juris Doctor from Georgetown University Law Center as well as a Master of Arts in English and political science from Case Western Reserve University.