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Using Copyrighted Works

Find resources and recommendations on making legal and ethical use of copyrighted scholarly work.

Intro to Getting Permission

Asking for permission to use a copyrighted work involves several steps:

  1. Finding out who the copyright owner(s) are.
  2. Contacting them with a specific request.
  3. Making sure, for your own protection, that you document what permission you requested and what permission you received.

Keep in mind that what you are getting from the copyright owner may not be a perpetual license, but a license to use a work in a particular situation, possibly for a limited amount of time.  Should you wish to repeat this use, or change the conditions under which you will use the work, you may need to request permission again.

The copyright owner is entirely within his/her rights to ask you for a fee or to say no.  These fees may or may not be negotiable.  

Finding the Copyright Owner

Published Works [books, journal articles, published music] :

1. For recently published works, the publisher of the book journal or musical work most often holds the copyright of a published work. Although in practice works of fiction usually list the author as the copyright owner, it is still wise to begin with the publisher. Look for the copyright owner to be named in the copyright statement on the verso of the title page. In the case of a journal article it is often at the bottom of the first page.  Larger publishers have separate copyright permission officers or departments.  Check the publisher's website by searching for "copyright permissions" or some similar terms.  In many cases, publishers have online permission forms to fill out. You may find it more efficient, especially with smaller publishers or where the author is clearly the copyright owner, to place a phone call to begin the process.

2. If the work is self-published, or from a blog, website, etc., send your request to the webmaster, blog-owner or author directly.  While a Google search will, in many cases, yield some contact information, a powerful source for contact information is the online Copyright Catalog of the U.S. Govt. Copyright Office.  

3. In your search for the copyright owner, be persistent and diligent documenting the efforts you made to contact the owner.  If you later need to proceed without the permission of the copyright owner, documentation of your good faith efforts could prove helpful.

Video and Film


See Copyright Media and the Performing Arts.

Requesting Permission

The key to making a good request is being explicit and precise.  


  • Give the title and author of the work along with its publication information
  • Explain exactly what part of the work you wish to use, e.g. page numbers, elapsed time in a movie or video, measure numbers from a printed musical work
  • Describe the nature of your project (educational, scholarly, non-profit) and how you intend to use the work, e.g. reproduce in a printed pamphlet of 500 copies, or set a poet's words to music, or use the image in a published scholarly book
  • Explain when and for how long you intend to use the work and  if your use is more than just temporary.
  • Describe where the work will be used (territory is important for printed works; for internet use, note that you are asking for world wide permission)
  • Describe which of the copyright owner's rights, copying, distribution, making a derivative work, etc. you wish to use.
  • Ask how the use of the work should be properly credited.



  • Be vague or unclear about your use - this in itself is reason for the copyright owner to deny permission for your use.
  • Expect an immediate response.  But be prepared to be persistent.
  • Send permission letters to all possible rights holders.  This is not only counterproductive but a waste of effort.  Be patient and write to one at a time.

Resources for Getting Permission

The Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) can provide licenses for uses exceeding Fair Use.  The CCC specializes in academic uses such as coursepaks, e-reserves, etc.   Their pay-per-use permissions page lists these services and provides links to set up accounts.

Coursepaks created through Brown University's Graphic Services are all properly licensed.   

Columbia University Copyright Advisory Office. Asking for Permission.  Columbia's site offers practical advice on how to contact the copyright owner, how to write an effective letter (email) and how to document your efforts.  It also includes model letters for use of video or text, and for use of copyrighted materials in a course management system.

Stanford University's The Basics of Getting Permission includes useful advice for seeking permission, getting it and negotiating payment (if required).