If materials you need to use are copyrighted (in other words, not in the public domain), you will almost certainly need to obtain permission to use them. The exception to this requirement would be use that is considered “fair use”. Failure to obtain permissions could result in legal action for infringement.
There are several standard steps in the process of acquiring permissions:
- Determine if permission is needed.
- Identify the copyright holder.
- Request permission in writing.
- If permission granted, acknowledge this appropriately.
- If permission cannot be obtained, be prepared to modify your plans.
Determine if permission is needed
- Use of materials in the public domain do not require permissions.
- Use of copyrighted materials for fair use may be done without permission, however, there is always a risk that your assessment of the fair use doctrine may be wrong. Fair use judgments are made on a fact-based, case-by-case basis (there is no one definitive test). See “Fair Use” tab in this guide.
Identify the copyright holder
- Prior to the 1980’s, authors were generally the rights-holders; since then, publishers have increasingly retained these rights.
- For print publications, begin by contacting the publisher.
- Collective sites: The and can provide easy access to many publishers and can provide for nearly-instantaneous purchase of rights by credit card in many instances. Both of these services will also seek permissions on your behalf if you are not finding the publisher listed. If none of these options is fruitful, you’ll need to contact the publisher directly via the Copyright Clearance Center
- Individual publishers: Many publisher sites provide a link to permissions information and/or contact information. If a book has been published in several forms (hardcover and paperback, for example), often the first publisher holds the rights you seek. See links on this page for resources that can be helpful in locating publishers.
- If the publisher does not own the rights, you may be referred to the author (or the author’s estate) … or multiple authors or creators associated with the work you wish to use. Use of some works (those with text, graphics, images, etc.) may require seeking permission from a number of individuals including authors, photographers, artists and others.
Request permission in writing
- Permission may take the form of a “license” (granting you the right to use the work), or a “release” (granting you the right to use the work with the promise by the author not to sue). Receiving permission may require payment of fees.
- Allow adequate time for receiving a reply. Requesting permission does not protect you from infringement if you have not received a reply.
- The Association of American Publisher recommends that all of the following information be included in your request:
- author's, editor's, translator's full name(s)
- title, edition and volume number of book or journal
- copyright date
- ISBN for books, ISSN for magazines and journals
- numbers of the exact pages, figures and illustrations
- if you are requesting a chapter or more, both exact chapter(s) and exact page numbers
- whether material will be used alone or combined with other photocopied material
- number of copies to be produced
- name of college or university
- course name and number
- semester and year in which material will be used
- instructor's full name
- method of reproduction (photocopying, scanning, etc.)
- See the list of sites showing model permission request letters in the left margin of this guide.
Acknowledge permission granted
If you are successful in obtaining permission, this permission is noted, generally, in any of the following ways, or according to any special instructions given by the grantor:
- Footnote in the text
- Source note to a table
- Credit line listed under an illustration.
- See the appropriate style guide for your discipline for more information.
If permission cannot be obtained, be prepared to change your plans
You may need to use less of the material than you had planned, or not use it altogether.