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Copyright and Fair Use: Request Copyright Permissions

A primer on the U.S. Copyright Act and Fair Use.

Steps for Requesting Permission to use Copyrighted Material

Procedures for Securing Permission

If you are just beginning the process, you may need to carefully consider the steps for securing permission, as detailed below:

Remember that 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: (1) the work you have selected to use is protected by copyright (i.e., not in the public domain), (2) your use is not a fair use, and (3) no other statutory exceptions apply. The process of securing permission may take more time than expected, or even worse, it may lead to a “dead end.” Therefore, start the process for obtaining permission well before you will need to use the work.

Step 1: Contact the Copyright Owner

Once you have identified the copyright owner(s), contact the owner 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 Collective Licensing Agencies. If the copyright owner is an individual, you will need to do the usualInternet and telephone searches to find the person. Be ready to introduce yourself and to explain carefully what you are seeking.

When contacting the copyright owner, use these tips to better ensure a timely response.

  • 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.

Step 2: Secure Permission and Write an Effective Letter

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, use the forms here, 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.

Step 3: Keep a Record

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 If I Reach a “Dead End”?

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.” You have a few alternatives in that situation, as detailed here.


Used under a Creative Commons BY license from the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University, Kenneth D. Crews, director.

When UIC Is the Copyright Holder

If you determined, or suspect, that the University Library is the copyright holder, use the form below to contact us about your intended use.