This page provides an overview of procedures for contacting and requesting permission from a copyright owner to use a copyrighted work. If you already know exactly what you want and are in communication with the copyright owner, you may go directly to one of the permission forms found at the end of this section.
Permission is not always required to use a work, depending on the work you choose or on your intended use. You may need to secure permission if you determine that the work you have selected to use is protected by copyright (i.e., not in the public domain), your use is not a fair use, and there are no other statutory exceptions apply. If you are just beginning the process, you may need to carefully consider the steps for securing permission, as detailed below:
Once you have identified the owner or owners, contact them to request permission.
Publishers often have websites that prescribe a method for contacting the copyright owner, so search the website for a permissions department or contact person. Be sure to confirm the exact name and address of the addressee, and call the person or publishing house to confirm the copyright ownership. Various collective rights organizations are sometimes able to facilitate granting permissions on behalf of owners. For a list of these organizations and more information, see Resources at the end of this section.
If the copyright owner is an individual, you will need to do the usual Internet and telephone searches to find the person. Be ready to introduce yourself and to explain carefully what you are seeking.
The copyright owner may prefer or require that permission requests be made using a certain medium (i.e. fax, mail, web form, etc.). If you do not follow instructions, you may not get a reply.
Telephone calls may be the quickest method for getting a response from the owner, but they should be followed up with a letter or e-mail in order to document the exact scope of the permission. E-mail permissions are legally acceptable in most cases, but getting a genuine signature is usually best.
The request should be sent to the individual copyright holder (when applicable) or permissions department of the publisher in question. Be sure to include your return address, telephone and fax numbers, e-mail address, and the date at the top of your letter or message. If you send the permission request by mail, include a self-addressed, stamped return envelope.
Make the process easy for the copyright owner. The less effort the owner has to put forth, the more likely you will get the permission you need. If you are using conventional mail, include a second copy of your request for the owner’s records.
State clearly who you are, your institutional affiliation (e.g., Columbia University), and the general nature of your project.
Do not send permissions letters to all possible rightsholders simultaneously. Taking the time to find the person who most likely holds the copyright will better yield success. If you do not have much information about who actually owns the copyright, be honest with your contacts, and they may be able to help you find the right person.
A “nonexclusive” permission may be granted by telephone or handshake, but an “exclusive” permission or a transfer of the copyright must be in writing and signed by the copyright owner. In all cases, a clearly written document with a signature is useful to confirm exactly what is permitted.
Some copyright owners furnish their own permission form that may be downloaded from a website. If the copyright owner does not provide a permission agreement form, you may use one of the forms listed at the end of this section under Resources, and follow these important pointers when drafting your own permission letter.
A most effective letter will include detailed information concerning your request for permission to use the work. Be sure to include the following pertinent information:
Who: Introduce yourself. Tell who you are and perhaps include a brief summary of your credentials. For example: “I am a professor of history at Columbia University and am the author of several books on American history.”
What: Be as specific as possible when you cite and describe the work you wish to use. If you plan to use the entire work, say so. If you need only part, give the details. For example: “I would like permission to reproduce pages 113 through 142 of [full citation to book].” You may need to be more detailed or include copies of the material, especially if you are using photographic images or sound or film clips.
How: Tell how you plan to use the work. Specify whether your use is commercial or nonprofit, for classroom learning or distance education, for research and publication, etc. Remember, the permission you obtain is limited by its own terms. For example, if you secure permission to include a video clip in a multimedia project for your own classroom teaching, the permission may not include sharing the project with colleagues, posting it to your website, or selling copies at a conference. If you want those rights, be sure to include them in the permission request.
When: State how long you plan to use the work, whether one semester or indefinitely. Some owners may be wary of granting permission for extended periods of time or for dates far in the future, but if that is what you need, go ahead and ask.
Where and How: Include information about how and where the work will be used. Such uses may involve classroom copies, reserves, coursepacks, password protected online displays, etc. Include the exact or estimated number of copies that you wish to make or the number of uses intended.
Why: Tell why you are contacting that person or entity for permission. For example: “I am writing to you, because I believe your company acquired the company that originally published the book.” Another example: “I believe that you are the grandson of the original writer, and therefore may have inherited the copyright to the letters and diaries.” If you are using materials from a library or archives, do not assume that the institution holds the copyrights. You need to investigate and ask.
Sometimes you need to be patient and persistent, and sometimes the owner responds quickly. In any event, the reply can take any number of possibilities:
Permission Granted. Great news. Move to Step 3.
Permission Denied. Find out why. Maybe you can negotiate a better result. In any event, you may need to change your plans or look for alternative materials.
Permission Granted, but at a Cost. The copyright owner may charge a fee for the permission. You might obtain a lower fee if you change your plans, e.g., by copying fewer pages from the book or making fewer copies of the work. Sometimes copyright owners require their own permission form. Read it carefully. The form may impose limits or include legal constraints (“You agree to be bound by the law of Illinois”) that are not acceptable to you. The decision to accept will be up to you, your counsel or supervisors, and your budget.
Keep a copy of everything. If you successfully obtain permission, keep a copy of all correspondence and forms. Also, keep a detailed record of your quest to identify and locate the copyright owner. Why keep these records? In the unlikely event that your use of the work is ever challenged, you will need to demonstrate your good efforts. That challenge could arise far in the future, so keep a permanent file of the records. Moreover, you might need to contact that same copyright owner again for a later use of the work, and your notes from the past will make the task easier.
What can you do if you come to a “dead end” in your quest for obtaining permission for the use of a particular work? If you cannot find the owner or you are getting no reply, your work may be an “orphan work.”
The Library owns several copies of the book Copyright Law on Campus. We wanted to use substantial portions of it in this guide, and determined our usage would exceed fair use. This is how we got permission:
Orphan works are defined as copyright protected works where you cannot identify a copyright owner or where you can identify the copyright owner but the owner cannot be located. Consider the following examples:
The work itself does not have a name, and you have searched through various different catalogs, databases, and other sources, according to the title or description of the work. Under copyright law, anonymous and pseudonymous works are still fully protected. Simply because you cannot find the name of the copyright owner does not mean that it is not under copyright. Nevertheless, you are left to ponder whom to ask for permission. Similarly, you may well be able to identify the original author or copyright owner, but that individual has died, or the company has gone out of business. You have not been able to track any heirs or successors.
Alternatively, you have concluded that the work is protected, and you have been able to identify the likely copyright owner, but you simply cannot find that person or entity. No listing appears in any of the usual reference guides or directories. You also have conducted a search of the records of the U.S. Copyright Office, and you have found no current registration of a copyright claimant or any documentation assigning the copyright to a new owner. Perhaps the original copyright owner was a company or organization that ceased doing business years ago, and you have not been able to find any person or entity that currently holds the rights. Perhaps the copyright owner died, but the heirs are untraceable. The copyright, nevertheless, lives on.
Because copyright runs for a significant period of time and does not require formalities such as registration or renewal to ensure that a work is still protected, many works are often divorced from the rights information necessary to seek and obtain permission. This is becoming an increasingly difficult issue as it relates to scholarly communications because many works are being released online or through social media without identification or rights data associated with the works. For scholars, journalists and other academics, it becomes increasingly difficult to authenticate sources in the online environment. And, even if you wished to use the work fairly in the context of your scholarly work, you may be hard pressed to provide adequate attribution, a necessity in exercising fair use.
Since 2005, the U.S. Copyright Office has tried on several occasions to develop policy and introduce legislation into Congress to deal with orphan works adequately. So far, none of these efforts have succeeded. The question, therefore, remains, how can you combat and manage the growing issue of orphan works within the context of your scholarly communications?
You have diligently investigated your alternatives. You do not want to change your project, and you remain in need of the elusive copyright permission. The remaining alternative is to explore a risk-benefit analysis. You need to balance the benefits of using that particular material in your given project against the risks that a copyright owner may see your project, identify the materials, and assert the owner’s legal claims against you. Numerous factual circumstances may be important in this evaluation. The “benefit” may depend upon the importance of your project and the importance of using that particular material. The “risks” may depend upon whether your project will be published or available on the Internet for widespread access. You ought to investigate whether the work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office and weigh the thoroughness of your search for the copyright owner and your quest for appropriate permission.
Undertaking this analysis can be sensitive and must be advanced with caution and with careful documentation. You may be acting to reduce the risk of liability, but you have not eliminated liability. A copyright owner may still hold rights to the material and may still bring a legal action against you, based on copyright infringement. Your good faith efforts can be helpful, but they are not necessarily protection from legal liability.