It can be challenging to figure out who owns a copyright. Because copyright is automatic, requires no notice, and can be sold, given away, or otherwise licensed, the material that we are looking at may not have a notice of copyright or that notice may no longer be accurate (e.g., when a publisher is acquired by another publisher or when rights revert back to the original author per a contract).
When the owner is a person
Try to find contact information by searching for them online. Though your initial conversations might be over the phone or on Facebook, Twitter, email, remember that you will want a signed letter of permission (see templates from Columbia University) to really feel confident legally speaking. Remember that people often do not own the copyright on their work, but it is instead owned by a publisher or other content producer.
When the owner is a company
Look on their website for a permission or copyright department. If you cannot find one, you will need to send a permission letter off to their main address.
If/When you do not hear back
If you cannot get permission and your use is not fair or covered by another exception, you should not use that material.
If you have determined that your use is not covered by any exceptions (Classroom Use, Fair Use, TEACH Act) and that the work is not in the public domain, you will need to ask the copyright holder for permission.
Depending on the rights you need and the work you are seeking permission to use, one of the copyright clearinghouse services may be of help, such as:
You may need to contact the copyright holder directly to ask for permission. When doing so:
Seeking permission is necessary in instances where your use is not permitted by any other part of the copyright law. Remember that not all educational uses are fair uses and that attribution is not a substitute for permission.
One of the most vexing problems in copyright law is the problem of "orphan works.” An orphan work is a copyright-protected work where it is difficult or impossible to determine who owns the copyright. The copyright term in the U.S. is long and copyrights outlive their creators by 70 years. Works by corporate or anonymous authors are covered by copyright for up to 120 years. That is a lot of time for the details of ownership to get lost in the shuffle.
When dealing with an "orphan work," you must basically decide to either take the risk that a copyright holder might later identify themselves or forgo using the work. It is hard to say how risky a given use might be. If a copyright holder came forward, they might simply insist that you stop using the work or they may attempt to recover damages. If you are using the material on a public-facing website, providing a takedown notice can show good faith in your use of such material. Be prepared to take action as needed, keeping in mind that not all claims of copyright infringement are legitimate.