Home > Copyright > Obtaining Permissions

Obtaining Permissions

This section, “Obtaining Permissions,” provides information on copyright, such as how to decide if permission is needed in order to use a work, how to obtain permission, and what to do if the copyright holder cannot be located or does not respond to requests for permission.


Copyright law in the United States gives the creator of a work a bundle of exclusive rights to do and authorize others to do the following:

  • To reproduce the work
  • To distribute copies to the public
  • To prepare derivative works based on the work
  • To display the work publicly
  • To perform the work publicly

These rights, however, are not unlimited. The law established certain exceptions from copyright liability. If the work enjoys copyright protection and there are no exceptions available, permission must be obtained from the owner to use the work. (Use in this context means engage in an activity covered by an exclusive right. Reading a book, for example, is not considered using it in a copyright sense.) Using a copyrighted work without permission may constitute copyright infringement, subjecting the user to significant civil and even criminal penalties.


When Permission IS NOT Required


I can make multiple copies of a single work as long as it is for classroom use.


Generally speaking, one copy may be allowable under Fair Use guidelines, but making multiple copies may exceed Fair Use.

  • Works in the public domain may be freely used without permission. A work in the public domain is a work that is no longer protected by U.S. copyright law because copyright protection has expired. Works published before 1923 in the United States are in the public domain. The copyright term for works created after 1923 depends upon a number of factors, including date of publication and whether the copyright was renewed. Generally, works created after 1978 enjoy protection for the life of the creator plus 70 years. See chart at Cornell University, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States. For European works, check Public Domain Calculation which incorporates laws from several European countries.
  • Works created by U.S. government employees as part of their official duties receive no copyright protection. However, works created by non-U.S. government employees with government funding do receive copyright protection.  Additionally, works created by state and local government employees can be subject to copyright.
  • Works in which the creator granted a license that permits the use you propose. For example, Creative Commons licenses typically permit noncommercial uses so long as the users provide attribution, i.e., indicate who authored the work.
  • Ideas and facts are not copyright protected and may be used without permission.
  • Use that would qualify as “Fair Use.” A significant limitation on a creator’s rights is the doctrine of Fair Use. The copyright law contains a non-exclusive list of purposes for which the use of a copyrighted work would be considered “fair,” such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship or research. Determining whether a proposed use is fair is case specific, and requires consideration of these four factors:
    1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is primarily of a commercial nature
    2. The nature of the copyrighted work
    3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
    4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

NOTE: Even when permission is not required under copyright law, attribution will often be needed as a matter of University policy.

Further Resources:


When Permission IS Required

If the work you seek to use is copyright protected and your proposed use is not fair or otherwise exempt from liability for copyright infringement, you need permission to use it. When in doubt, seek permission.


If an item is out-of-print it is in the public domain.


An item may be out-of-print yet still copyrighted. Consult When Does Copyright Expire and the Work Enter the Public Domain to check whether an item is in the public domain.

Examples of uses that typically require the copyright owner’s permission:

  • Including articles or book chapters in a coursepack
  • Including photographs in a textbook
  • Posting another’s work to the internet
  • Publishing a translation of a novel
  • Using a student’s work in your work
  • Creating an anthology
  • Posting an article on a departmental web site

You should note that out of print works still may be covered under copyright, and permission might be necessary prior to use. Similarly, a work may still be subject to copyright even if it is posted on the Internet and available for download without charge.

Note: Providing credit or attribution for a copyrighted work is not a substitute for obtaining copyright permission. Responsible practice requires both.

Further Resources:


How to Get Permission

To obtain permission to use copyright protected works, use the following steps as a guide:


As long as attribution is provided then it is ok to use part of a work for my research paper.


Attribution is not a substitute for seeking permission from the copyright holder.

1. Identify the copyright holder

Electronic Formats:

  • If the source you are seeking permission to use content from is available online, check the source itself. Many sources in electronic format contain a link that reads “Get Permissions” or an icon   to the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) which leads to an online form to complete in order to obtain permission to use content.
  • For musical works, the University’s license with ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC may cover the work.

Print Formats:

  • For most published written works, the publisher is the copyright holder
  • Look for the copyright symbol © and the copyright notice that follows
  • Consult the American Association of Publishers Membership list
  • For books and journals, consult the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC). If the publication you need is listed, follow the instructions on the web site
  • For other formats and non-U.S. publications, consult the University of Texas Copyright Crash Course Getting Permission

Further Resources:

2. Ask for permission in writing

To protect yourself from claims of infringement, the request for permission and the response should be in writing. (Email communication and fax is acceptable).

The request should include the following:

  • The details of the specific work – full bibliographic information. If necessary, attach a copy of the article, quotation, diagram, picture or other material you want to use so that there is no question about what you are asking to use
  • Specifics about your intended use
  • The nature and purpose of the use
  • Verification of copyright ownership (sometimes authors do not remember that they assigned all their rights to the publisher)
  • Your return address, your affiliation, telephone number, and the date. A self-addressed stamped envelope may hasten the response

Make it as convenient as possible for the copyright holder to reply to you. Send two copies of your request so they can keep one and return one. Allow up to two months for this process. Resend the original letter if no response within a month. On average, publisher’s permissions departments take at least four to eight weeks to respond.

Document the steps of your process. Be sure to retain the written permission, if received. Permission by telephone is not recommended, but if that is only way to obtain permission, document the details of the conversation and keep it with your files.

Pay fees or satisfy other conditions. Prices and conditions vary widely depending on the copyright holder (commercial or non-profit) and the use you have requested.

Note: Keep in mind that copyright owners are under no obligation to reply to a request for permission to use a copyrighted work. The owner may grant your request, grant it with conditions, or deny your request.

Sample Letters to Use for Requesting Permission

The following letters are available Word templates for your use.

  1. Request use of materials for classroom use (used by faculty or TA)
  2. Request use of materials for other purposes (used by faculty, students, etc)
  3. Request permission to use part of a work in a new publication (used by authors who wish to use part of a work or image in a new publication)


No Response from Publishers and “Orphan Works”

“... all one can really expect when seeking to ‘know’ the copyright status of a work is to increase degree of certainty. After a point, it’s a risk analysis issue, as so much of usage of older copyrighted works is. If your use is commercial, you probably require a higher level for your degree of certainty. If your use is nonprofit and educational and you interweave the risk analysis involved with relying on fair use into your risk matrix, you might be comfortable with a lower level for your degree of certainty. And, as you might suppose, the orphan works status of a work, also a matter of degree of certainty, figures into the risk analysis for use as well.”

— Georgia Harper
Scholarly Communications Advisor
University of Texas at Austin Libraries
Sept. 18, 2008

It is not uncommon to receive no response to your request from a copyright owner. Copyright owners do not have to respond a request for permission to use a copyright protected work, and their failure to respond does not constitute permission.

It is also not uncommon to reach a dead end in seeking permission because you cannot identify or locate a copyright owner. “Orphan works” are copyright protected works whose owners cannot be identified or located. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this problem. Legislation and regulatory solutions have been proposed and are currently under discussion.

Further Resources:

Using a work without permission may constitute copyright infringement. Here are a few options to consider:

  • Replace the work with an alternative. Ask the staff at Washington University Libraries or Becker Library for assistance with locating alternative sources. The alternative might be in the public domain or have a copyright holder which you can identify and locate.
  • Seek assistance to examine the risks and benefits of using the work without permission.
  • Search Creative Commons works for a possible substitute.


Have questions about copyright? We can help you.
Contact your copyright liaison:
Becker Library: Cathy Sarli | Washington University Libraries: WULIB_CopyrightHelp@wumail.wustl.edu

Top of Page