Last updated 12/31/20
I’m not a lawyer, but I have voiced an attorney in multiple audiobooks. Just because an author has passed away or isn’t easily discoverable, or the book is out of print, doesn’t mean you’re free to create the audiobook of her book!
Before you can record an audiobook, you must do due diligence to determine whether the book is in the public domain or still under copyright. When a work is still under copyright, the rights holder is the person or company that owns the audio rights to the book. The rights holder (RH) will receive the royalties from the sale of the audiobook.
If the book is still copyrighted, the RH could retain the audio rights and hire you as an independent contractor to produce the audiobook. You also could license the audio rights and become the rights holder. If you’re interested in this second option, I highly recommend you purchase my webinar with attorney and audiobook producer/director/distributor Jessica Kaye on this topic using the link on my Shop page.
The links on this page will help you understand the copyright laws in the US and UK and do your research to determine whether a book is in the public domain or find the rights holder for books still under copyright. By the way, members of my site NarratorsRoadmap.com have access to an exclusive video where I demonstrate how to use some the sites listed below. I also offer members a number of links not listed here, including some collections of potential public domain books I found on Hathitrust.org.
General info about copyright terms and the public domain:
Be aware that copyright law varies by country.
- US Copyright Office Frequently Asked Questions About Copyright
- Cornell University chart that shows Copyright Terms and The Public Domain in the United States
- In general, as of 1 January 2021, if the book was published in the US before or in 1925, it’s in the public domain. You are free to record it as is or create a derivative work from it. For instance, I created a derivative work by combining the texts from authors Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland about their independent, solo trips around the world in 1889 into a single, flowing narrative. My resulting book and audiobook, to which I own the copyright, is Bly VS Bisland: Beating Phileas Fogg In A Race Around The World.
- If the book was published between 1925 and 1963, check its status in Stanford University’s US Copyright Renewal Database, the NY Public Library’s data, and with Steven Cohen’s tool, all listed in the section below.
- The footnotes at the bottom of Cornell’s page offer even more useful links for research.
- Nolo’s quick guidelines on Determining the Length of US Copyright Duration
- OnlineBooks has an excellent FAQ, particularly the page How Can I Tell Whether a Copyright Was Renewed?.
- US Copyright Office Circular 92: Copyright Law of the United States
- Per Section 105, works created by the US Government are automatically in the public domain. These include materials created by an officer or employee as part of their official duties. For example, using material I found on a federal web site devoted to history, I created the text for my audiobook The Trial of Susan B. Anthony. You can contact the site administrator if you have any doubt or question about using material on federal web sites.
- US Copyright Office Circular 14: Copyright in Derivative Works and Compilations
- Translations and anthologies are derivative works that get their own copyright. A text could be in the public domain due to non-renewal while a translation of that text could still be under copyright.
- UK Copyright Service Fact sheet P-01: UK Copyright Law
Sites that you may find useful in determining the rights holder of your copyrighted title:
For a current book, I would contact either the author or the publisher by finding their web sites. The Amazon listing for the book includes the publisher name, but often these are smaller imprints of a larger publisher. In those instances, you may be able to use the Amazon “Look Inside” feature to learn the publisher name. Kindle books are automatically added to the Look Inside program, but the publisher or author must enroll other editions.
Authors who independently publish their books often include their web sites and/or email addresses in the front or back matter of the book. You’ll find more ideas for searches below.
If you contact a publisher, you will want to send your inquiry to the Subsidiary Rights department. This chart shows the Big 5 US print publishers and their imprints. Be aware that a single Subsidiary Rights department may manage more than one imprint.
When the book is in the backlist and/or out of print, you may need to do more research on these sites to determine the copyright status and locate the rights holder.
- Stanford University US Copyright Renewal Database This database does not include every registration, so it’s possible a renewal was filed but not matched in this system.
- This NY Public Library article explains the issues with renewals. This site offers an unofficial search of the NYPL’s copyright registrations and renewal data on Github.
- Steven J. Cohen’s Copyright Renewal Checker searches scans of pre-1978 Copyright Office records.
- United States Copyright Office Public Catalog (1978-present)
- Online Books Page Copyright Registration and Renewal Records
- Harry Ransom Center UTA Locating US Copyright Holders
- Has searchable database, 10 other ways to find rights holder, and other resources
- QueryTracker Literary Agents Who Reps Whom
- Offers free and paid accounts and contains a database of deal reports.
Other search tips:
- Indie authors usually have a web site, so simply Googling the author’s name frequently reveals their site.
- You could Google “AuthorName BookTitle” (together within the quotes) to find other sites where you might contact the author.
- If you can’t find a web site under the author’s name, Google “AuthorName pseudonym”.
- You might even get lucky by Googling “AuthorName BookName audio rights”. Using that search, I once found an article about the author that included mention of her agent’s name.
- You could look for articles that mention the author’s representatives by Googling “AuthorName literary agent”, “AuthorName attorney”, etc.
- Go to each of these social media sites and search for the author’s name: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest.
- These searches and the following instructions work better for more famous authors. Google “AuthorName obituary” or “AuthorName literary estate”. Once you find the author’s obituary, look for names of agents, attorneys, and survivors. If you Google “AuthorName papers finding aid,” you may find the institution that maintains the collection of the author’s documents, which can include the publishing contracts, letters to their attorney or rep, etc. Repeat the Google searches for the names you uncover until you can find contact info. I once ended up creating a family tree to research the current rights holder for a title published in the 1920s or 1930s. I’ve also hired a researcher at a far-away college to physically look at particular author materials that I discovered through the Finding Aid for the collection.
If you can’t find the rights holder after doing some research, go on to another book. Chances are that this author wouldn’t pay your PFH rate or promote the audiobook, making it unattractive to do as any sort of royalty share project.
Once you’ve found the rights holder, this info may be helpful:
- Jane Friedman’s blog Requesting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter
- Includes helpful flowchart infographic, as well as links to permissions departments for the Big 5 publishers
- PublishLawyer.com Permissions Agreement form
- This template may help you create a licensing agreement.
I’ll continue to update this page as I find more related sites. If you’ve found useful sites in researching rights holders, I’d love for you to leave its URL in the comments. Also, you may want to check out the links I listed for authors in the companion article Links to Help Authors Know Their Rights.