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Copyright and Fair Use

When do I need to request permission?

If the content you want to use does not meet one of the exceptions below, you'll need to request permission from the copyright holder:

  • The work is covered by a Creative Commons license
  • The work is public domain
  • The use reasonably falls within the four factors of fair use

Obtaining Permission

Once you've identified the owner(s), contact them to request permission. 

Publishers often have websites that prescribe a method for contacting the copyright owner. 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. 

If the copyright owner is an individual, you'll need to search for the person yourself. Be ready to introduce yourself and to explain carefully what you are seeking. 


  • The copyright owner may prefer or require that permission requests be made using a certain media (i.e. fax, mail, online form, etc). If you do not follow instructions, you may not get a reply.
  • Phone calls may be the quickest method for getting a response from the owner, but they should be followed up with an email in order to document the exact scope of the permission. Email permissions are legally acceptable in most cases, but getting a genuine signature is the best.
  • The request should be sent to the individual copyright holder (when applicable) or permission department fro the publisher in question.) Be sure to include your return address, telephone/fax numbers, email address, and the date at the top of your letter or message. If sending request by mail, include a self-address, stamped return envelope.
  • Make the process easy for the copyright owner. The less effort the owner has put forth, the more likely you will get permission. If you are using conventional mail, include a second copy of request for the owner's records.
  • State clearly who you are, your institutional affiliation , and the general nature of your project.

Do not send permissions letters to all possible rightholders simultaneously. Taking the time to find the person who most likely holds the copyright will better yield success. If you don't 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.

Some copyright owners furnish their own permission form you can download. If the copyright owner doesn't provide a permission agreement form, you can try one of the forms listed on the Examples tab. Make sure to follow these important pointers. 

The Letter

The 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.
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 only need part, give details. For example: " I would like per mission to reproduce pages 113-142 of [full citation of book]. You may need to be more detailed or include copies of the material, especially if you are using photographic images, 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 or publication, etc. Remember the permission you obtain is limited by its own terms. 
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 times or for dates far in the future, but if that is what you need, 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. 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 has 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 impost limits or include legal constraints ("You agree to be bound by the law of Texas") that are not acceptable to you. The decision to accept will be up to you, your counsel or supervisors, and your budget.

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. 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 your task easier.

What if I reach a dead end?

If you cannot find the owner or you are getting no reply, your work may be an "orphan work". 

This page is licensed by a Creative Commons Attribution License with attribution to its author Dr. Kenneth D. Crews (formerly of Columbia University)