Published works often have clear copyright statements which name the copyright owner at the time of publication. Copyright holders can be individuals, multiple people, or even large organizations. Look for notices that include “copyright,” “copr.”, or symbols like ©. Creative Commons notices can also contain information on rights holders.
Not all works will have a clear copyright statement; this is often true of material that is not yet published or was never intended for publication. In cases where copyright is not clear, it is useful to identify the author of a work. The author, whether an individual or an organization, is often the original copyright holder and/or an important clue as to the current copyright holder. Authors of published works are often clearly and prominently identified. Other works may contain clues to their authorship: initials, logos, addresses, etc. Even distinctive elements of style can provide clues to authorship. For works that are part of a library or archives collection, clues to authorship may lie elsewhere in the collection or with library or archives staff.
There are many ways for copyright to change hands. Upon the death or dissolution of a copyright owner, copyright does not expire, but rather will pass to an heir or successor organization. Resources such as Family Search or published obituaries can help identify next-of-kin for individual copyright owners. Search engines or a visit with a librarian can help find information on defunct organizations.
Copyright can be transferred through a legal contract. This is common when a work is created on behalf of an organization or by commission. Works created during the normal course of employment are often considered “works for hire” and copyright is owned by the employer rather than the creator, sometimes without a formal contract.