Copyrights can potentially become a concern if your business happens to have acquired a very old business dealing in media. Stored in your business might be creative works that have been sitting around gathering dust for a long time and with no identification as to who created them. These could be books, photographs, or even articles with no author designation. It's all intellectual property (IP) you could potentially use in your business for profit. But should you go ahead and use them if you aren't sure if they're copyrighted? How do you locate copyrights on that IP?
If they were created before 1923, then they're likely in the public domain. Assuming that media is much more recent, it's likely those items are copyrighted. You will need to do a little detective work to track down the copyright owner or face risk of someone suing you for copyright infringement.
Using the copyright office for records search
The US Copyright Office has a records search page where you can conduct research into who might own the copyright. By typing in the name of the work, a keyword, or an available registration number, you can get quick results on finding a source if the content was created after 1978. Researching records before that requires a little more work by visiting the US Copyright Office in person (it's open to anyone).
Your only problem with this method is that not everyone bothered to register their work when it was created. All of the media you found might also be non-registered, hence requiring a little more research on the internet. It's important you continue researching, because even a non-registered media work can result in the creator suing you if you use without permission.
Using search engines to track down clues
If that IP happens to be a song or a book, typing in the lyrics or the title of the book on Google might lead to some clues on websites. Some sites compile lyrics to millions of songs written over the last 100 years. You might be able to finally attach a name to that song. The same goes with books where you may match a title to name on Amazon.com.
Dealing with transfer of copyright
Even if you do find the name of the copyright owner, it's possible you'll find the owner has since died and had the copyright transferred to someone else. This could be a family member or even a publishing house. Just because someone dies doesn't mean copyrights don't continue through other ownership. It's important you trace where the transfer went to through the same search methods above.
Columbia University gives tips on how to do more complex searches when trying to find where a copyright transfer went to. You can see how labyrinthine some searches may have to be when tracking down the real owners. This could involve going through county records, reverse directories, or small publishing houses. It could take a long time to find beneficiaries of those copyrights. In some cases, a company without scruples might profit off the work anyway if a family member doesn't realize copyright ownership.
It's a good practice to track down those beneficiaries the best you can to stay ethical and avoid risk. You might be lucky enough to find out enough of the found material is in public domain so you can profit substantially.
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