Obtaining copyright permission is the process of getting consent from a copyright owner to use their work. This is also called licensing -- by giving you permission, the copyright owner grants you a license to use their work in a particular way.
The owner is not granting you copyright to the work, only permission to use it. Even though it is not legally required, getting permission can sometimes be a practical way to lower your risks and avoid potential copyright disputes.
Follow the steps to the left to determine if you need permission for your use and, if so, to obtain that permission.
Graphic by Megan Pritcher
Determine if You Need Permission
First you need to determine if you even need permission in order to use a work.
You do not need permission if:
Ask for Permission
Once you have identified the copyright owner, you then need to determine the substance of your permission request. it is important that your request clearly describe the scope of how you intend to use the work, otherwise the permission you receive may fall short of meeting your needs. Be sure to include all the rights you anticipate needing, and include alternatives if you are unsure of the format (e.g. print, DVD, web) in which the work will be used. If you will be using the work only for noncommercial, educational purposes, include this information as well -- many copyright holders will be more willing to grant permission if they understand that their work will be used for education.
The Association of American Publishers recommends that all of the following information be included in your request:
Identify the Copyright Owner
The next step is to identify who owns the copyright in the work.
The author is the first owner of the copyright, but the author may sell or transfer the copyright to someone else. For many works, the publisher rather than the author is the copyright holder. You can often identify the owner through a copyright notice. However, not all copyrighted works will have a notice.
If the publisher does not own the rights, you may be referred to the author or multiple other authors or creators associated with the work. Use of some works (those with text, graphics, images, etc.) may require seeking permission from a number of individuals including authors, photographers, artists and more.
You can use the resources listed below under Finding Copyright Owners and Licensing Agencies to help identify copyright owners and securing permissions.
Keep a Record
Lastly, be sure to keep a copy of all permissions and license agreements! having a written record can be invaluable if questions or disputes arise down the road, and allow you to demonstrate to others that you have the legal right to use the owner's work (particularly publishers, who will often require written proof that permission has been obtained).
Although getting written permission from the copyright owner is your best bet, permission does not have to be in writing. If you are not able to get something in writing, document your conversation. You may also want to send a letter of confirmation to the owner setting out your agreement.
In some cases, you may never get a response for the copyright holder -- you may never even be able to identify who they are or how to contact them. It can be difficult to know how to proceed when you reach a dead end. Unfortunately, no matter how diligently you have tried to get permission, these efforts cannot completely eliminate the risk of infringement should you proceed to use the work.
Graphic by Megan Pritcher
Identifying and finding copyright owners can be a difficult task, but there are many resources that can help with the search.
The Copyright Office's Online Catalog contains copyright information for post-1978 works that were registered with the office. For pre-1978 works, the office's registration records are available in hard copy form.
The Copyright Office publication How to Investigate the Copyright Status of Work has information on how to determine the copyright status of a work using the office's resources.
WATCH -- Writers, Artists, and Their Copyright Holders -- is a database providing copyright and contact information for a number of individuals in the creative field.
The National Association for Music Education's Copyright Center can provide guidance on how to navigate licensing and other copyright issues for musical works.
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