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Copyright Resources Guide

Getting Permission

If you have determined that your use is not covered by any exceptions (Classroom Use, Fair Use, TEACH) and that the work is not in the public domain, you will need to ask the copyright holder for permission.  Columbia University has some very helpful model letters you can use as a template.

When asking for permission:

  • Be as detailed as possible about how you plan to use the work.  Include things like the number of students in your class, how long you plan to use it, exactly what portions of the work you want to use, etc.
  • For journal articles and books from major publishers, rights are often handled by the Copyright Clearance Center.  You can go there and search before sending a letter.  Permissions in the CCC will virtually always be granted for a fee.
  • Know that in many cases you will be quoted a fee for using the work.  You can attempt to negotiate this fee.
  • Be prepared for it to be a lengthy process.  Just tracking down the owner can take a long time and response times can vary quite a bit.
  • Remember that the creator is often not the copyright holder.
  • If you are denied permission or quoted a fee that is unreasonable, remember that being denied doesn't have any impact on fair use.  Some people ask for permission as a matter of course and conduct a fair use analysis only if they are unable to get permission.  

Seeking permission can be a long and frustrating process (though it isn't always) but it is necessary in instances where your use is not permitted by any other part of the copyright law.  Remember that not all educational uses are fair uses and that attribution is not a substitute for permission, when permission is necessary.


Who Owns the Copyright?

A frustrating reality is that sometimes even when we want to ask for permission - even to pay for permission! - it can be challenging to figure out who owns a copyright.  Because copyright is automatic, requires no notice, and can be sold, given away, or otherwise licensed, it is often the case that the material that we are looking at has no notice of copyright or that the notice of copyright is no longer accurate (as when a publisher is acquired by another publisher or when rights revert back to the original author per a contract).

When the owner is a person

Try to find contact information by searching for them online. Though your initial conversations might be over the phone or on Facebook or Twitter or email, remember that you'll need a formal signed letter of permission in order to really feel confident legally speaking. Remember that people very often do not own the copyright on their work but it is instead own by a publisher or other content producer.

When the owner is a company

Look on their website for a permissions or copyright department. Some companies will have big copyright permissions operations and make it easy for you, some will have little info and you'll simply need to send a letter off to their main address.

When you don't hear back

It is not uncommon to send a permission request to the copyright holder and never hear back or to hear back months later. If you do no receive a response and your use is really not fair or covered by another exception, the sad truth is that you probably cannot use the material.  

When There Is No One To Ask: Orphan Works

One of the most vexing problems in copyright law is the problem of "orphan works".  These are those great many works where it is difficult or impossible to determine who owns the copyright.  The copyright term in the US is very long and copyrights outlive their creators by 70 years.  Works by corporate or anonymous authors are covered by copyright for up to 120 years.  That is a lot of time for the details of ownership to get lost in the shuffle.

When dealing with an "orphan work", you must basically decide to either take the risk that a copyright holder might later identify themselves or forgo using the work.  It is hard to say how risky a given use might be.  If a copyright holder came forward they might simply insist that you stop using the work or they may attempt to recover damages.  


Additional Resources

Copyright Information

Spokane Falls Community College Library is grateful to Rachel Bridgewater at Portland Community College, who created the original resource that this guide is adapted from.

"Copyright Resources" by Rachel BridgewaterPortland Community College is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0