When Do I Need to Ask for Permission?
If you are incorporating copyrighted materials in your teaching, writing, or other work, you may need to get written permission from the person or institution that holds the copyright in those materials. Before requesting permission, you should determine whether or not permission is required for your use. The following uses do not require permission from the copyright owner:
- Public Domain. If a work is in the public domain, it is not subject to copyright protection and can be used freely.
- Open Access. If the work is available with a Creative Commons license, you may use it without permission provided that you follow the terms of that license. For uses beyond the scope of the license and fair use, you will need to request permission from the rights holder.
- Fair Use. If your use of the work falls within the scope of fair use, permission is not needed.
How Do I Request Permission?
First, plan ahead if you can! While sometimes permissions requests are granted (or denied) very quickly, publishers can take 4-8 weeks to respond to a permissions request. If negotiations about the scope of the use or license fee are required, the timeframe could be further extended.
Second, have a backup plan if you cannot get permission. Any of the following are possible outcomes of the permissions process: you are unable to find the copyright owner; the copyright owner never responds to your request; the copyright owner denies your request; or the copyright owner has restrictions or fees that are not acceptable for your use.
Third, when you're ready to seek permission, use the four-step process outlined below.
1. Identify the copyright owner. Depending on what type of work you would like to use, this can be a very straightforward or very complicated process. Start by looking at the work to see what information is available regarding the creator and/or rights holder. Note that the author or creator of the work is often not the rights holder. Below are some general rules for identifying copyright holders and will not apply in every case.
- books and journal articles - rights are usually held by the publisher, not the author
- manuscript collections - rights are usually held by the author or his or her heirs
- well-known artists - rights are often licensed through an agency, such as the Artists Rights Society or VAGA
- lesser-known artists - rights may be handled by one of the agencies listed above, a gallery, or the artist
- music - rights will be handled by different agencies depending on how you are using the music; BMI, ASCAP, Harry Fox, or Rightsflow all license music for various purposes
- films - rights are often administered through the film studio, such as MGM, Sony, or Universal Studios
Several websites provide information that may be helpful in locating copyright owners:
- The United States Copyright Office has a searchable database of copyright registrations and renewals for all works dating from January 1, 1978, to the present in its online records catalog.
- Older copyright registrations and renewals can be searched volume-by-volume using the Catalog of Copyright Entries, which covers 1891 to 1977.
- Stanford University's Copyright Renewal Database is a searchable database of copyright renewal records for books published in the US between 1923 and 1963.
- The WATCH Copyright File (Writers Artists and Their Copyright Holders) is a searchable database of copyright contacts for writers, artists, and prominent figures in other creative fields. It is a joint project of the University of Texas's Harry Ransom Center and University of Reading Library in England.
- Firms Out of Business is a database with information about publishers, literary agencies, etc. which are no longer in existence. Where possible the entries in FOB identify successor organizations which might own any surviving rights. Like WATCH, FOB is run jointly by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Reading Library.
2. Clearly identify how you want to use the work. Before you contact the rights holder, think carefully about the scope of rights you will be requesting from the rights holder.
- how much of the copyrighted work will you be using?
- is it for a non-profit educational use?
- do you need rights for a print publication, online, or both?
- if it is print, how many copies will be published?
- if it is online, for how long?
- if it is online, will it be on a password protected website?
- if it is online, how many users do you estimate will be viewing the copyrighted material?
- how will you give attribution to the creator of the work?
- what is the price of your new work, if any?
- are you willing to pay a license fee, and, if so, how much?
- do you need worldwide rights?
- could there be future editions of the publication for which you also want to secure rights?
3. Send the rights holder a permission request. In addition to the information listed above, your permission request should also include the following information about you and your project:
- your name
- your position
- your school or affiliation
- your contact information (email address, phone number, street address)
- a paragraph describing the project and how the copyrighted material will be incorporated into the project
Publishers that handle large numbers of permission requests frequently will have a form, often online, that you can use to initiate the process. If not, or if your use does not fit into the form's categories, you will need to draft your own permission request and send it to the contact you found in #1 above. Before making a permissions request, you should have the following information to include in a permission request letter.
4. Wait for a response and negotiate if necessary. There are several possible outcomes to your permissions request:
- Your request is granted without additional restrictions or fees. This means you are done!
- The rights holder replies with additional or different terms, such as restrictions or fees, from what you requested. If this is the case, you will need to review the revised terms to see if they are agreeable to you. If so, then you are done. If not, you will need to continue negotiations or find an alternative work.
- Your request is denied. If your request is denied, you could consider negotiating with the rights holder to see if there are terms that would be mutually agreeable. If not, you will not be able to use the copyrighted work and will need to find an alternative.
- You get no response to your request. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon outcome for the permissions process. If you do not get a response and you have a deadline approaching, you should send a follow-up message or make a phone call to see if you can get an answer. If this doesn't work, then you will not be able to use that copyrighted work and will need to find an alternative.
Best Practices for Tracking and Documenting Permissions
* Keep a spreadsheet or document with a log of all dates, correspondence, and contact information.
Read more about the permission process
The Basics of Getting Permission (Stanford Copyright & Fair Use Center)
Requesting Permission (Columbia Copyright Advisory Office)
Stim, Richard. Getting Permission: How to License & Clear Copyrighted Materials Online & Off. 5th ed. Berkeley: NOLO, 2013.