The American composer Leo Sowerby died on July 7, 1968. At first there were three ways of contacting his heirs: 1. via the Sowerby Foundation, run by his friend Francis Crociata. They had a newsletter, a website, etc. But Mr. Crociata has since passed away, the website has disappeared, and anything sent to their old address bounces back. 2. His executor was Ronald Stalford who though not a relative himself, knew hot to contact the heirs. Mr. Stalford has since passed away and I have been unable to find out who took his place as executor. 3. The Washington National Cathedral, where Dr. Sowerby worked for the last several years of his life, used to know how to contact the heirs, but has lost touch with them.

I want to copy a handwritten manuscript on file at the Library of Congress. Without permission from the copyright owner, they'll let me look at it, but that's it, and I need a copy for some research I'm doing.

Are there any provisions for copying if, following reasonable diligence, the copyright owner can't be found?

  • 2
    I'm not in the US, but assuming from the concents of your post that Sowerby left a will and that it was granted probate, first you can get access to it to find if there were other executors (often a law firm is named, even if a personal friend actually does most of the work), and if nobody else can be traced you may be able to get an official "Letter" (a Letter of Administration, or a Letter Testamentary) from the Probate court organization, to get the access you want. Since the material was deposited in a Library it's hard to believe that Sowerby intended that it should never be seen again.
    – alephzero
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 2:21
  • That's a very helpful suggestion. Thanks, I'll try it.
    – L3B
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 2:36
  • The copyright office has an address of record, although it is often not up to date.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 0:29

1 Answer 1


There is a good chance that the letter in question is in the public domain. Prior to 1978, the copyright laws were very different. Also, if it was published in 1963 or earlier and there was an initial claim of copyright but the copyright was not renewed, it would also be in the public domain.

A convenient table summarizing when various pertinent categories of works enter the public domain can be found here.

It might be possible to construe depositing the work with the Library of Congress as either a "publication" of the work (which if it happened before 1964 would put it in the public domain), or as a relinquishment of the copyright to the public domain, although I am not a specialist familiar with the legal effect of different forms of donations to the Library of Congress and it could depend upon the facts and circumstances of that particular donation to the Library of Congress.

If worse came to worse, I imagine it might be possible to seek a declaratory judgment that your use was a fair use with substituted service on the heirs, and seek a default judgment, although that would not be optimal.

The general problem that you face is that the work in question is what is called an "orphan work". Many other countries have special procedures to allow the use of orphan works, but the U.S. has resisted such legislation except for a narrow exception applicable only to libraries and archives at 17 U.S.C. § 108.

  • First of all, it's not a letter. It's a handwritten music manuscript that predates a published version of the same work, published in 1930, copyright renewed in 1958, and originally scheduled to move into the public domain in 1986. However, the various revisions to the copyright law have resulted in the copyright being extended.. It's hard to determine from the language of the revisions whether the work now is extended to 2025 or to 2038, but it's one of those two and is definitely still under copyright.
    – L3B
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 14:30
  • Bummer. The copyright extension act was really an appalling piece of legislation.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 15:23

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