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This guide provides an introduction to U.S. copyright law and associated resources related to education and scholarship.

Steps in the Permission Process

The following steps are adapted from Kenneth D. Crews’ book Copyright Law for Librarians and Educators: Creative Strategies and Practical Solutions (4th ed.).

decorative image1. Precisely identify the work you wish to use and how you wish to use it.

It is important that you are able to clearly describe the scope of how you intend to use the work, otherwise the permission you receive may fall short of meeting your needs. This includes anticipating future needs and alternatives if you are unsure of the format (e.g. print, DVD, web). For example, if you ask to use a work in a conference presentation, the permission may not include making the presentation available online or publishing it in conference proceedings.

Note also whether you will be using the work only for noncommercial and/or educational purposes. Many copyright holders will be more willing to grant permission if their work will be used for education or in a way that will not be monetized. Ultimately, stay flexible and have substitutions at the ready.

2. Determine whether permission is necessary.

Is the work copyrighted or is it in the public domain? Is the work already licensed for your desired use? Would your use fall within the exceptions? Perhaps you want to seek permission as a courtesy or to alert the copyright owner of your usage. When you have determined that the work is not in the public domain and that your use does not fall under an exception or already-licensed use, you should pursue permission from the copyright holder.

Circular 22 from the U.S. Copyright Office further discusses how to investigate the copyright status of a work.

decorative image3. Identify the copyright owner.

The creator is the first owner of the copyright, but they may sell or transfer the copyright to someone else or a publisher. Look for a copyright notice on the work, and use that information to search for the entity's contact information.

If there is no notice provided, you will need to search various registries to try to identify the owner. You may have to contact publishers, editors, heirs, or licensing agencies to determine whether copyright has been transferred. The following registries and resources can help you get started:

For classroom uses—such as course reserves, class copies of articles, and movie showings—contact the University Libraries for assistance. We can help you through our established channels and may already have licensing in place for some content.

4. Draft a written permission request.

While it is a good idea to reach out by phone or email to ensure that you have contacted the correct party, always seek permission in writing so that you have a written and signed document as proof of permission.

Be sure to include (and prepared to negotiate):decorative image

  • The exact portion of the work you wish to use
  • The name of the licensee (you, your co-authors, and/or your publisher)
  • The period of time (for publications, include translations and future editions; for teaching, ask for multiple semesters)
  • The purpose of your use
  • How you are duplicating and/or distributing the work (making copies for handouts, posting on a secured course management system, etc.)
  • How many and how much: e.g., numbers of students

Larger publishers and networks often have permission departments with standard forms available online (e.g. the American Psychological Association). Otherwise, see below for example permission letters:

5. What to do if you reach a dead end:

That is—you never find the copyright owner, you don't receive a response to your request, the licensing fee is prohibitive, or you are denied permission.

  1. Return to making a fair use argument or using another exception. (A denial of permission does not preclude you from making use of an exception.)
  2. Modify your use to meet the copyright owner’s restrictions.
  3. Conduct a risk-benefit analysis of using the material without explicit permission or coverage by an exception.
  4. Use alternative materials for which you are less likely to infringe copyright law.

Columbia University Libraries provide further guidance on special cases such as foreign and orphan works.

What is an orphan work?

decorative image of Little Orphan AnnieOrphan works are "works protected under copyright whose owners are difficult to locate" (Nolo's Plain-English Law Dictionary).

Orphan works pose a problem because a large amount of history can be lost if works are not reproduced or preserved due to the inability to secure permission. Though no legislation specifically details how to deal with orphan works, the U.S. Copyright Office has issued a report to study the issue and propose solutions.

Image Credits:

Crystal ball image adapted from Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay and Image by FiveFlowersForFamilyFirst from Pixabay
Image by Graphics@ HandiHow from Pixabay
Little Orphan Annie illustration by Ethel Franklin Betts from Project Gutenberg