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Let's say, I want to make a computer video game that is based on some book.

As far as I am concerned, to make such game a reality, I need to acquire the rights.

How can I achieve that goal? Should I contact for such issue book publisher by email? Or there's some government entity which processes such inquiries?

I'm interested in specific case, when author of the book died long ago.

I understand that I probably didn't do enough research on that topic, but I really like to have any advice, at least where should I start my search.

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If the author died long enough ago (75 years ago) or the work was written long ago enough (under the 1909 act) and not renewed after the first term, the work would be in the public domain (under US law). Assume the copyright is still viable, then the author may have transferred the right to the publisher, but (esp. if this was a well-known author) may have licensed the book to the publisher and retained the right. The publisher would know if it is theirs, and might know who the author's agent is for permission. If they do not, you might check the copyright search, which could direct you to the person who now holds the right. The problem is that to get effective protection, a work must be registered, but once registered, there is no requirement to update LOC with your current whereabouts or state of health. So you could then try to figure out the disposition of the copyright by reading the author's will (you would request a copy from the probate court where the will was probated, if there was a will), and hope that eventually leads to the right person.

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  • well, the last right-holder is Warner Brothers Entertainment, Inc. Is that means dead end? – PaulD Mar 19 '17 at 21:50
  • @PaulD why would that be a dead end? Warner Bros still exist and you can get their address from a Goggle search. – Dale M Mar 19 '17 at 22:24
  • @DaleM But they're a corporation. Meaning they are probably greedy as a pig. Anyway, I don't have any idea how to contact them on the matter, or how to make them willing to cooperate. Hope you might give some advice on that too. – PaulD Mar 20 '17 at 20:45
  • @PaulD you negotiate to find out what they want to give you permission and then you decide if you are willing to pay. This is called a "free-market economic transaction" – Dale M Mar 20 '17 at 22:01
  • @DaleM well, I'm afraid that what they'll ask in return will be unaffordable. – PaulD Mar 20 '17 at 23:11
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Unfortunately "How to find a rightsholder?" is not a legal question. Even more unfortunately it is not a trivial undertaking.

It is unclear at law if copyright can be abandoned the way personal property can be. It is also unclear if an item under copyright can be placed in the public domain other than by expiry of the copyright term: attempts to do so probably create a non-revocable, royalty-free licence to everyone instead.

In light of that, unless copyright has expired somebody owns it. Given that copyrights can be transferred like any other personal property (e.g. sold, gifted, bequeathed, distributed to creditors in bankruptcy etc.) and such transfers are not recorded, working out who that somebody is is problematic.

If you wish to make use of copyright material in a way that is not fair use/dealing the onus is on you to make all reasonable efforts to find and obtain the permission of the copyright holder.

If you were to diligently search for the holder (e.g. for a book by contacting the publisher and the author and following up whatever leads they give you) and document that search then you could use that documentation to protect you from damages claims if the actual copyright holder emerged and sued you. You would still be required to stop using their copyright material even if you are shielded from damages. Of course, they would need to prove that they were the copyright holder by having evidence of a chain of transfers from them back to the original holder.

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