Getting Permission


After examining your use of another person’s copyrighted work to determine whether or not it falls under the boundaries of fair use, it is entirely possible that you will find your desired use requires permission.

Who to ask?

It is not uncommon for the original author of a work to no longer hold the copyright to that work. Sometimes publishing companies have ownership of the copyright due to contracts that the author signed. Other times, the author has died and the copyright owner is relative or beneficiary.

Works that have a registered copyright can be searched in a government copyright database (as long as the work was registered after 1978). Stanford has created a Copyright Renewal Database that contains some (but not all) records for works from 1923 to 1968.

Collective licensing agencies are also resources that you can use to purchase a license to use a particular work or section of a work.  One of the largest and most well-known collective licensing agencies is the Copyright Clearance Center.

If the above methods do not yield any results, another good strategy for obtaining permission to use a work is to contact the work’s publisher. Many publishers have forms and procedures in place to handle these types of requests.

What to Say?

If you find yourself in a situation where you need to contact an individual – perhaps the author – for permission or if a publisher does not have any obvious procedures in place to handle copyright requests, you will need to write a letter or email formally requesting permission. You can call, but it is a good idea to follow up with a written document so that you have tangible proof of permission. Keep in mind that copyright holders are often more likely to grant permission if it is for a fairly limited use, so do not ask for more than what you need. Your letter should outline as completely as possible the following details:

  • What portion of the material you will be using. Be as specific as you can – name chapters, quote the section, or summarize in detail.
  • How you will be using the material. Will it be part of your dissertation? Are you showing a movie to a class?
  • The frequency of the use. Do you want to be able to show the movie every year?
  • What you will be getting out of the use. Will you earn royalties off of your resulting work? Will it be of purely educational value for your students?

Be absolutely sure to save a copy of your letter for your own records as well as any other communications with the copyright holder.

What if the Copyright Holder Denies Your Request?

If the copyright holder denies your request to use material you have limited options. First and foremost, double check to see if your intended use falls under fair use. If it falls under fair use, it does not matter that the copyright holder says no, you still have the right to use that material.

If you are positive that what you want to do does not fall under fair use and the copyright holder denied your request, the safest course of action is to replace this material with something that you can legally use. If this is absolutely not possible, it is up to you to weigh the consequences of going against the copyright holder’s wishes. Will the potential benefits of your use outweigh the consequences if the copyright holder notices your work and finds you liable?

What if the Copyright Holder Never Responds?

No response from the copyright holder or an inability to locate the copyright holder does not grant you permission to use a work no matter how hard you have tried to obtain permission. If this is the situation you find yourself in, you may want to consider using an alternative work or paring down your intended use of the work so that it falls under fair use. At times, an author may be more willing to consider and respond to a request for a more limited use of their materials.

Special Situations

Orphan Works - Orphan works are works where the copyright holder simply cannot be located no matter how hard you try.  In the U.S. orphan works are still protected by copyright so you cannot use them without permission.  There has been legislation proposed in the past to change this but as of yet it has not been made into law.

Multiple Creators - If there are multiple creators or authors of the work you wish to use, you must get permission from each individual.

Creative Commons – Some works have creative commons licenses which follow different rules than normal copyright. Often, these allow you to use a work more broadly and extensively than fair use would typically allow. For more information visit either our Creative Commons page or CreativeCommons.org.