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Copyright Guide for Students : Permissions

Getting Permission for a Use

Once you know you need permission for a particular use, you'll need to:

  1. Find out who controls copyright for that item

    Although copyrights usually originally belong to the creators, by the time you access something, the creator may have transferred those rights to someone else. The copyright in most books is owned by the publisher; the copyright in most music is owned by a distributor. However, it can still be a good idea to contact the creators. If the creators can't give you permission, they may be able to put you in touch with someone who can.

  2. Find out how to contact the person or entity that controls copyright

    Use your online searching skills to track the person down. If the creator is still alive, you're likely to find an email address or phone number. If you end up referred to a publisher or other organization, you may find a person whose job it is to deal with permission requests.

    If you can't find what you need, see if a librarian has suggestions.

  3. Send a permission request and negotiate for the permission you need

    There's no formal requirement for the format of your permission request. You may be contacting the person by email, phone, web form or in print and will be explaining what you want to use and how. Don't be surprised if you need to negotiate from the original qualified permission or denial. For example, if they first say you need to pay for permission, you might reply with a reminder that you're a student using the material for a course or by agreeing to limit access to your final product to people in your course or for one semester.

  4. Document the permission in writing or with an email

    If the copyright owner gives you permission, you want some documentation of that permission. The copyright holder may have a standard letter they send explaining what permission they're given, but an email exchange that includes a clear description of the approved use and agreement from the copyright holder is generally fine too.

What should I include in my request?

  • Tell who you are. For example: “I am an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin enrolled in a course on ________."
  • Describe the work you wish to use as specifically as possible. If you plan to use the entire work, say so. If you need only part, give the details. For example: “I would like permission to use the clip from 3:22 to 4:40 of the video posted [full URL].” 
  • Tell how you plan to use the work. Remember, the permission you obtain is limited by your description of how you'll use it. For example, if you secure permission to include a video clip in a multimedia project that will be shared online with your instructor and classmates, that does not allow you to include it if the project ends up posted on a website available to the public. If you want those rights, be sure to include them in the permission request.
  • Explain why you are contacting that person or entity for permission. For example: “I am writing to you, because I believe your company acquired the company that originally published the book,” or: “I believe that you are the grandson of the original artist, and therefore may have inherited the copyright to this image.” 

This information is adapted from Asking for Permission website by Dr. Kenneth D. Crews (formerly of Columbia University), posted at the Columbia University Libraries Copyright Advisory Office website.

For more information: Permission Requests