Permissions Guide

Obtaining Permission To Use A Copyrighted Work

There will always be times when your proposed use of someone else's copyrighted material will require the permission of the copyright holder. Perhaps you want to use more of the work than a fair use analysis would support.  Perhaps the work is governed by a license which prohibits your proposed use without permission.  There are any number of scenarios where obtaining permission from the copyright holder is the best or only course available to you.  However, it is worth noting here that just because you request permission, does not preclude you from later asserting fair use.  That is, maybe you've asked for permission before you even heard about fair use and once you make a reasoned fair use analysis, you think you don't actually need permission.

Once you think that you need permission for your use, your first step will be to identify the copyright holder(s) of the work and it may not necessarily be the original author(s).  It could be the publisher, the author's employer, or any other entity that has received a written transfer of any or all of the rights.  Some works, such as music and films, contain multiple holders with multiple rights.

-  Obtaining Copyright Permissions (from the University of Michigan); see the blue tabs across the top of the page.  Contains specific help for seeking permission for different kinds of works: text, photos, fine art, music, film, theatre and so forth.  Excellent.

-  Asking for Permission, Copyright Advisory Office at Cornell University; excellent resource for both model forms as well as comprehenive source of collective licensing agency contacts. 

-  Multiple Forms and Releases (from Duke Libraries)

Model Letter for Streaming Video on Internet (from Columbia University)

Model Letter for Text Use (from Columbia University)

Model Letter for Use of Material in a Course Management System (from Columbia University)

UT Sample Written Request for Permission

Frequently Asked Questions About Permissions

1.  What if my permission request is denied but now I believe fair use or a specific provision of the copyright law applies that would allow my use without permission? Am I disadvantaged because I asked?

Previous payment of a fee or even outright denial of permission does not preclude you from exercising your rights under the Copyright Act.  You can still employ an appropriate specific provision or the fair use provision and there is no presumption against you for having asked for permission.

2.  What if there is no response to my permission request?

Lack of a response does not translate into a passive grant of permission to use.  If your proposed use exceeds all provisions of the law, including fair use, you probably need to find another solution such as using a link to the work, finding another work to use, or modifying your proposed use to fit within fair use.

3.  What if the work is out of print?  Is that the same as out of copyright?

"Out of print" is not the same as "out of copyright."  An out of print work may still be protected by copyright and should be approached the same as a work still in print.

4.  What if I can't find current contact information for the copyright holder?  For example, the publisher of the work is out of business or the author is deceased and I can't locate heirs?

Such situations present the problem of a work whose copyright holder cannot be located, despite reasonable efforts.  This has become a widely discussed and researched issue by the U.S. Copyright Office and other organizations.  Such works are generally called "orphan works" and various proposals and possible solutions are being discussed.

At the present time, however, educators and libraries must make individual decisions concerning their use of such works, including evaluating the risk of liability.  Those who proceed with their use should document and preserve their efforts to locate the copyright holder.

© 2007, 2010 Peggy E. Hoon;  Links updated 2015.