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Copyright and Fair Use

An overview of copyright, focusing on your rights as a copyright owner and use of other people's works in academic contexts

Requesting Permission

The previous sections of this guide outline many ways you might be able to legally use other's works without permission:

  • If the work is in the public domain;
  • If the copyright holder has already given permission for the use through a Creative Commons license; 
  • If you have made a good faith determination that the use is fair use;
  • If the use complies with another exception in Copyright Act, like those specifically intended for classrooms.

In all other cases, you must get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., obtain copyright clearance).

Sending and Tracking Permission Requests

Include the following when you're seeking permission. 

  • Your name, address, telephone number, and email address.
  • Your title/position and name of university.
  • The date of your request.
  • A complete and accurate citation (this helps to narrow down exactly to the work you are requesting permission for and if the requestee holds the copyright at all).
  • A precise description of the proposed use of the copyrighted material (when it will be used, how many people will have access, how long it will be available).

Keep track of your requests! If you do receive permission, it's important to maintain a record of this.  If you do not receive permission, this may weigh in favor of fair use.  If you send the request via email, save and file a PDF copy of your request and any response you receive. This PDF from the Copyright Office provides further suggestions for getting permission.

Orphan Works

If you can't find contact information for a copyright holder, you may have encountered an orphan work.  Unfortunately, this is quite common.  Legislation has gone before Congress to deal with this problem, but so far there is no resolution.  If you encounter an orphan work, here are some suggestions:

  • Re-do your fair use analysis.  Could you use less of the material to accomplish your purpose?  If no permissions are available for purchase, this could weigh in your favor.
  • Find a substitute (see "Free-to-use Resources").

Copyright Clearance: General

  • For formal publications, such as books and articles, copyright is often held and managed by the publishers. Go to the publisher's website and see if you can find information about requesting permissions.  This is often under the "contact us" section.
  • WATCH (Writers, Artists, and Their Copyright Holders) is a database of copyright contacts for writers, artists, and prominent figures in other creative fields.
  • If you're unable to contact the publisher, try the Copyright Clearance Center.  You will have to pay for permission to use content through the CCC, but they have a great deal available and you can see the cost before purchasing.