This section provides information on using work created by other people, and how to decide if permission is needed, how to obtain it, and what to do if the rights holder cannot be located or does not respond.

When Permission IS NOT Required

  • 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 four factors.

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

Further Resources:

< Back

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.

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:

< Back

How to Get Permission

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

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—typically for a fee.
  • 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.
  • For books and journals, consult the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC). If the publication you need is listed, follow the instructions on the web site

Other tools:

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. Even if you believe your use would be fair, a subsequent commercial publisher of your project may require you to secure permissions merely as a matter of policy.

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)

Further Resources:

< Back

No Response from Publishers and “Orphan Works”

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. Moreover, denial of permission does not preclude an assertion of fair use.

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.

< Back

NOTE: The Office of the Vice Chancellor and General Counsel (OGC) manages the legal affairs of Washington University in St. Louis. Libraries staff offer general information but do not provide legal advice specific to your situation.