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 find the rights holder.
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, if the book was published in the US before or in 1923, 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 1924 and 1963, check its status in Stanford University’s US Copyright Renewal Database 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
- 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.
- 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. You may be able to use the Amazon “Look Inside” feature to learn the publisher name. Kindle books are automatically added to the program, but the publisher or author must enroll other editions.
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 locate the rights holder.
- Stanford University US Copyright Renewal Database
- 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:
- You could Google “AuthorName BookTitle” (within the quotes) to find other sites where you might contact the author.
- 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.
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.
Last updated 6/25/18