Copyright & Fair Use

Securing Copyright Permissions

If you have determined that the material you want to use doesn't qualify for Fair Use under the T.E.A.C.H. Act or is not in the public domain, it is up to you to obtain permission from the copyright holder or a rights clearinghouse to use the material. This page will guide you through how to reach out to a copyright holder and provide information on using the Copyright Clearing Center.

How do I contact the copyright holder?

Check the work's copyright notice to find out who owns the rights to the work. Another way to find out who holds copyright is to search the Library of Congress' Copyright Catalog, which will give you a list of a material's copyright holder(s) if it was registered after 1978. You can then go through the publisher's website or perform an Internet search to obtain the copyright holder's contact information. Publisher's websites often have a permissions department or a contact person who can help you confirm copyright ownership. 


  • The copyright owner may prefer or require that permission requests be made using a certain medium (i.e. fax, mail, web form, etc.). If you do not follow instructions, you may not get a reply.
  • Telephone calls may be the quickest method for getting a response from the owner, but they should be followed up with a letter or e-mail in order to document the exact scope of the permission. E-mail permissions are legally acceptable in most cases, but getting a genuine signature is usually best.
  • The request should be sent to the individual copyright holder (when applicable) or permissions department of the publisher in question. Be sure to include your return address, telephone and fax numbers, e-mail address, and the date at the top of your letter or message. If you send the permission request by mail, include a self-addressed, stamped return envelope.
  • Make the process easy for the copyright owner. The less effort the owner has to put forth, the more likely you will get the permission you need. If you are using conventional mail, include a second copy of your request for the owner’s records.
  • State clearly who you are, your institutional affiliation (e.g., Whitworth University), and the general nature of your project.

Do not send permissions letters to all possible rightsholders simultaneously. Taking the time to find the person who most likely holds the copyright will better yield success. If you do not have much information about who actually owns the copyright, be honest with your contacts, and they may be able to help you find the right person.

Orphan Works

Orphan works are defined as copyright protected works where you cannot identify a copyright holder or where you can identify the copyright holder but they cannot be located. For example:

  • You can't identify the copyright holder.
  • You can't locate the copyright holder.
  • The material you want to use was a work released online or through social media.

There are no easy answers for what to do in these situations. You need to balance the benefits of using that particular material in your given project against the risks that a copyright owner may see your project, identify the materials, and assert the owner’s legal claims against you. Numerous factual circumstances may be important in this evaluation. The “benefit” may depend upon the importance of your project and the importance of using that particular material. The “risks” may depend upon whether your project will be published or available on the Internet for widespread access. You ought to investigate whether the work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office and weigh the thoroughness of your search for the copyright owner and your quest for appropriate permission.

(Based on and used under a Creative Commons BY license from Kenneth D. Crews, former director of the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University.)

How do I obtain permission to use the work?

Write a Letter

Once you've identified and introduced yourself to the person who holds the copyright for the material you want to use, you will need to write them a letter to ask for written permission to use their work. Getting permission by email is legally acceptable, but obtaining a signed document with the copyright holder's signature is best practice. Sometimes the copyright holder will be able to furnish you with their own downloadable permission form via their website; often, you will have to write your own. You can find example letters to help you get started at the bottom of this page. 

Follow these steps to draft your letter:

Who:  Introduce yourself and provide a brief summary of your credentials. For example: “I am a professor of English at Whitworth University and the author of several books on British literature.”

What: Be as specific as possible when you cite and describe the work you wish to use. Tell them whether you wish to use the entire work or a specific sections. For example: “I would like permission to reproduce pages 87 through 112 of [full citation to book].” If you are using photographic images or sound or film clips, include them.

How: Tell how you plan to use the work. Specify whether your use is commercial or nonprofit, for classroom learning or distance education, for research and publication, etc. Remember that the permission is limited to your specific request - if you secure permission to include a video clip in a project for your own classroom teaching, you may not share the project with colleagues, post it to your website, or sell copies at a conference. If you want those rights, be sure to include them in the permission request.

When: State how long you plan to be using their work, whether for one month, one semester, or indefinitely. 

Where and How: Tell them specifically where you will be using their material and how. Will it be used in a lecture, or a course packet? Will it be password protected on Blackboard, or will you need 15 copies for classroom use?

Why: Tell them why you're contacting them 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 writer, and therefore may have inherited the copyright to the letters and diaries.” If you are using materials from a library or archives, do not assume that the institution holds the copyrights. You need to investigate and ask.

*Remember: Send your letter with plenty of time to spare before you need the material, and be as detailed as possible about how you plan to use the work. Include in your letter a self-addressed and stamped envelope for the copyright holder's response; you want to make their job as easy as possible. 

Possible Responses

Sometimes the owner will respond to you quickly, other times you will need to be patient and persistent. These are a few scenarios which may result:

Permission Granted: If the copyright holder grants you permission to use their work, great! Keep a record of your correspondence and their response so you have proof of permission if you need it later. 

Permission Denied: If permission isn't granted, find out why. It may be possible to negotiate a better result. 

Permission Granted at a Cost: The copyright owner may charge a fee for the permission. You might be able to negotiate the fee if you're willing to change your plans (e.g., making fewer copies or using a shorter video clip). If the copyright owner's own permission form imposes legal constraints or restrictions that are impossible for you to meet, you will need to use another work. 

No Response: If you do not hear back from the copyright owner after failed attempts to make contact, you might have an orphan work on your hands (see the top of this page for information on orphan works). In this case, you may be able to return to Fair Use, or you can choose to use alternative materials.

(Based on and used under a Creative Commons BY license from Kenneth D. Crews, former director of the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University.)

Rights Clearinghouses

There are a variety of rights clearinghouses online where you can purchase licenses to use different kinds of materials. The Copyright Clearance Center is an example of one of the most commonly used sites. 

Copyright Clearance Center

  • If the material you wish to use is text-based, such as a journal article or part of a book, you can potentially save yourself the trouble of writing a permission letter to a copyright holder by checking the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) for your material first. If the work you want to use is already registered with the CCC, you can pay a fee and instantly receive use permissions. Faculty are responsible for any fees associated with purchasing copyright licenses.

Model Permission Letters

Linked below are a few examples of how to write a permissions letter, courtesy of Columbia University's Copyright Advisory Office. Please feel free to modify the letters' contents to suit your needs and purposes.