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Getting permission

Collective rights organizations | Contacting owner | Changed owner | Authority |
In writing | Difficulty identifying owner | Unidentifiable/unresponsive owner


Assuming the work you wish to use is protected, the work has not been licensed for your use online, and your use is not a fair use or otherwise exempt from liability for infringement, you need permission. Now what?

Collective rights


Getting permission can be difficult , but in some cases there are steps likely to yield results. The steps will vary depending on the type of work you need to use. If the work is part of a book or a journal article, check the Copyright Clearance Center ("CCC") first. The CCC offers electronic and photocopy based transactional (case-by-case) permission services, as well as a subscription license that covers typical institutional use of works for the classroom of all the works in the license repertoire. Your library or copy center is probably already working with the CCC and should be able to help you. If the work you want to use is registered with the CCC, you can get permission instantly for most materials. If your institution subscribes to the academic license and your work is covered, you don't have to do anything -- your use is covered.

Foreign collectives

Lesley Ellen Harris publishes information about international collective rights agencies at her website. For example, she notes: "VERDI (Very Extensive Rights Data Information) which is financed by the EU is linking together the services of existing multimedia rights clearance systems in Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain. CLARA, a Web site organized by 5 Norwegian copyright collectives, since November 12, 1998 informs users of their rights and rights clearances of all types of copyright materials including use in multimedia productions.

The UK-based Copyright Licensing Agency ("CLA") offers a license for the creation, storage and exploitation of digital versions of existing print works in its repertoire.

Image archives

At this time, the professional organizations representing image creators cater to commercial interests and may be unfamiliar with educational needs. There are only a few collections specifically devoted to educators. Until more organizations catering to our needs emerge, these are a sampling of your options.

Freelance writers

If the author has retained copyright in a contribution to a periodical such as a magazine or newspaper, permission may be obtained through Ingenta, which handles rights for the Publication Rights Clearinghouse, a collective-licensing agency representing such writers' groups as The National Writers Union (NWU), the Canadian Science Writers' Association (CSWA), the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and the United States Section of the International Association of Art Critics, among others.

Music performance

If you wish to perform a musical work, your University's license with ASCAP, BMI or SESAC may cover your use. Check with your university's business office.

Want to record and distribute a musical composition that has already been recorded by someone else, or synchronize music with visual images? Check with The Harry Fox Agency, Inc.

Online performances are quite complicated. They involve 3 rights rather than just one: (i) the performance right in the musical composition (see ASCAP, BMI and SESAC above), (ii) the performance right in the sound recording and (iii) the right to duplicate the musical composition (see Harry Fox Agency, above). Each of these rights must be licensed from a separate entity.

The owner of the sound recording is usually the record label. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) represents most major labels and has a good explanation of the statutory license available to certain Webcasters. There is also a nonprofit educational radio station exemption that covers Webcasts of licensed radio broadcasts. If the statutory license or the nonprofit educational radio station exemption do not apply, you will have to get permission from each record label whose recordings you wish to Webcast.

Music Research Consultants' web page contains links to publishers, record labels, music rights agencies, and more. This is a good place to gather contact information. If you know the name of an artist, album, song or label, the All-Music Guide allows you to search for more information and often links directly to the source.

Play rights

Rachel Durkin Drga, Production Manager of the Performing Arts Center at the University of Texas at Austin has written two very informative articles about Obtaining Rights to Produce a Play or Musical or to Use Music in Live Performance.

Samuel French, Inc.
45 West 25th Street
NY, NY 10010-2751
Phone: 212-206-8990
Fax: 212-206-1429

Anchorage Press (Plays for young people)
PO Box 2901
Louisville, KY 40102-2901
Phone: (502) 583-2288
Fax: (502) 583-2281

Baker's Plays
100 Chauncy Street
Boston, MA 02111-1783
Phone: 617-482-1280
Fax: 617-482-7613

Dramatists Play Services, Inc.
440 Park Avenue South
NY, NY 10016
Phone: 212-683-8960
Fax: 212-213-1539

Music Theatre International (Major musicals)
545 Eighth Avenue
NY, NY 10018-4307
Phone: 212-868-6668
Fax: 212-643-8465

News archives

If the work you need to use is from a newspaper or other news organization, check the Web. Many of the largest news organizations have placed archives of their back issues online.


The Motion Picture Licensing Corporation , Movie Licensing USA , and Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. , grant public performance rights.

The Motion Picture Licensing Corporation is an independent copyright licensing service exclusively authorized by major Hollywood motion picture studios and independent producers to grant Umbrella Licenses to nonprofit groups, businesses, and government organizations to ensure that the public performances of home videodiscs and videocassettes comply with the Federal Copyright Act.

Movie Licensing USA, a corporate division of Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., addresses the specific Movie Public Performance Site Licensing needs of schools and public libraries. Movie Licensing USA provides an exclusive license that satisfies the copyright protection needs of the movie producers, while offering a worry-free, liability-free movie license.

Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., is a major movie distributor and a public performance licensing agent in non-theatrical markets where feature entertainment movies are shown. Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., has exclusive distribution arrangements in many markets with most American movie producers for the motion pictures seen in theaters. Creating an account requires basic information (shipping and billing addresses, contact person, telephone number, fax number, and an e-mail address), and pricing varies by format, title, and venue. For more information, contact:

Tiffany Ellis
Senior Account Executive
Swank Motion Pictures
Phone: 1-800-876-5577
Fax: 314-289-2192

FYI: A recently obtained license dated September 18, 2003, for a one-time showing of the films Ordinary People and A Beautiful Mind cost $331.00 per film for a total cost of $662.00.

Internet Archive has educational public domain films available for download. The films are stored in MPEG format and need to be downloaded to view rather than viewing as streaming video.

You may also need to investigate whether any rights need to be cleared that could be held by the actors, producers, writers, performers, guilds, or composers. Agent representation for living people can be found at the WhoRepresents website.

One may research film and video copyrights using the database at the Library of Congress. This database lists claimants and copyright ownership to works registered after 1978. To search for works registered before 1978, one must search in the Library of Congress online catalog, LOCIS, or in printed Copyright volumes. Stanford University has created a database containing information from before 1978, but it only includes textual works.

Contacting the owner

If you know who the author and the publisher are, you can contact them directly. Wake Forest University maintains a site with links to many publishers. If you do not know who the publisher is, The Literary Marketplace (for books) or Ulrich's International Periodicals (for journals), both published by the R. R. Bowker Company, may help you. Project Acorn provides extremely helpful information about how to find copyright owners as does U.T. Austin's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. If you visit these sites, spend some time there exploring all the information they have provided about the process of getting permission.

Once you know whom to ask, writing a letter, calling or emailing are all appropriate ways to initiate contact.

Changed owner

Sometimes the apparent copyright owner is no longer the real copyright owner. The Copyright Office now provides online searching of some of its registration records and performs professional searches for a fee.

Confirming authority to grant permission

Whenever it is unclear who the owner is, or if the owner is a legal entity of some kind (a business or organization), you should be sure that the person giving you permission is authorized to do so. For example, if you are negotiating with an author, question her about whether she retained copyright or whether she assigned it to her publisher. Sometimes people are unsure. If you are preparing a commercial product, you will need assurances of authority to grant permission because your publisher will expect those assurances from you.

Written permission

Ideally, your permission should be in writing and should clearly describe the scope of what you are being permitted to do. Vaguely worded permissions may not cover your intended use. Be careful here: describe what you want to do precisely and include alternatives if you are unsure of format. For example, if you are preparing a Web-based multimedia product, you may wish to distribute it on physical media under some circumstances.

Permission does not have to be in writing. If you receive oral permission, precisely describe what you want to do, and then document the conversation carefully. It wouldn't hurt to send a confirming letter to the owner, asking him or her to initial it and return it to you if it accurately reflects your agreement.

Difficulty identifying

If the author, creator or publisher is not obvious, such as may be the case for historical photographs, architectural drawings, personal papers or other archival materials, your task may be more difficult. Try the following:
  1. Check with the source of your copy of the work for any information about who owns the copyright and how to contact the owner. For example, the library where you found the materials may own the copyright or know whom to contact for permission to use the work or excerpts from it.
  2. Manuscripts: Check the WATCH File, a database that contains primarily the names and addresses of copyright holders or contact persons for English-language authors whose papers are housed in whole or in part in libraries in North America and the United Kingdom.
  3. Architectural works: Getting Permission to Use Archival Materials Related to Architectural Works
  4. Photographic images.
  5. Plays: Obtaining Rights to Produce a Play or Musical; Obtaining Rights for Music Used in Live Performance
  6. Check with your source for an alternative work that is either in the public domain, available under a Creative Commons license, or for which copyright ownership can be more easily determined.

unresponsive owner

Sometimes, even if you go through all the right steps, you may not figure out whom to ask or the owner may not respond. There truly may be no one who cares about what you do with a particular work, but the bottom line is that no amount of unsuccessful effort eliminates liability for copyright infringement. Copyright protects materials whether the owner cares about protection or not.

While it is possible that a thoroughly documented unsuccessful search for an owner would positively affect the balance of the fair use test under the fourth factor or lessen a damage award even if the court determines that there was an infringement, there are no cases addressing this issue, so it's only a theory. Because your institution is likely to be liable, along with an accused individual, for the infringements of faculty, students and staff, most institutions advise such individuals not to use works for which required permission cannot be obtained. But many institutions are beginning to look at this reaction more carefully, and may determine that at times there are important considerations favoring limited nonprofit educational use of materials that would counterbalance the risk of harm to someone's legal rights.

If an institution makes reasonable, but unsuccessful, efforts to find an owner, it may be willing to assume some risk if the counterbalancing benefit is significant. If it turns out that there is an owner who objects to the use, under the circumstances, taking the materials down most likely will adequately address the owner's interests. If the owner wishes to take things further, well, that's the risk...

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The Copyright Crash Course © 2001, 2007 Georgia K. Harper