Skip to Main Content



permission imageObtaining copyright permission is the process of getting consent from a copyright owner to use their work. This is also called licensing -- by giving you permission, the copyright owner grants you a license to use their work in a particular way.

Whether or not you need to get permission to use a work will depend on a number of factors, outlined in the steps below. Even if not legally required, getting permission can sometimes be a practical way to lower your risks and avoid potential copyright disputes.   

Image Credit: Francesco Gonin, from I promessi sposi. Source:

1. Do You Need Permission?

Your first step is to determine if you need permission in order to use a work. There are many situations in which getting permission will not be necessary:

  • The work is in the public domain: Works in the public domain are not protected by copyright law and may be used without permission. Cornell's Copyright Term and the Public Domain is a good tool for figuring out whether a particular work is in the public domain.
  • Open Access logoThe owner has already given permission: Increasingly, copyrighted materials are becoming available under Open Source, Open Access, or licensing mechanisms such as Creative Commons that allow for many uses without the need to seek permission. Licenses vary (e.g., they may require attribution or prohibit commercial uses), so it is important to review their terms before using the material. Website terms and conditions statements may also grant permission for educational or noncommercial uses. 
  • Classroom performances and displays: The Copyright Act contains a specific exemption permitting the performance or display of works during the course of face-to-face teaching activities in the classroom. Therefore, you do not need permission to, for example, show a movie or display an image in an SPU course. Bear in mind that the classroom performance exemption has some important limitations -- it does not allow you to reproduce or distribute copies of copyrighted works and does not always apply courses that are made available online.
  • Bobst LibrarySPU already has a license: SPU Library licenses many journals, newspapers, other publications, still and moving images, and audio content for use as course materials. These materials can be made available to students -- without incurring the copyright permissions costs associated with Coursepacks -- by linking direcly to the source. You can search SPU Primo or ask an SPU librarian  if material has been licensed.
  • Your use qualifies as Fair Use: While many educational uses of copyrighted materials may qualify as Fair Use, this is not automatically the case. The Fair Use section of this guide explains how to evaluate whether a particular use of a copyrighted work meets the requirements of Fair Use.

2. Identify the Copyright Owner

identify the copyright holder image

Depending upon the work, identifying the copyright owner can range from straightforward to complex to impossible. The author is the first owner of the copyright, but the author may sell or transfer the copyright to someone else. For many works, the publisher rather than the author is the copyright holder. You can often identify the owner through a copyright notice such as "© 2010 SPU Press." However, it is important to be aware that a copyright notice is not a legal requirement for a work to be protected by copyright -- not all copyrighted works will have a notice. If further research is required, try the following:

U.S. Copyright Office Registration Records

Copyright ownership information for works registered with the U.S. Copyright Office after January 1, 1978 can be searched using the Copyright Office's Online Catalog. For pre-1978 works, the Office's registration records are available only in hard copy form. The Copyright Office publication How to Investigate the Copyright Status of Work (PDF) has information on how to search the Office's records or pay a fee to have the Office conduct a search for you. As with copyright notices, registration with the Copyright Office is not required for the owner to receive copyright protection. A work may still be under copyright even if it was never registered. 

Books, Articles, & Other Literary Works

  • SPU Bookstore: For SPU course readings, SPU Bookstore clears copyright permissions and provides protection from liability for infringement to SPU and individual faculty members. The Coursepack Service can also be used to obtain permission to post course materials online, such as on Canvas. Before seeking permission through the SPU Bookstore, faculty should ask SPU Library to see if the material has already been licensed. If so, the material can be made available to students -- without incurring the copyright permissions costs associated with Coursepacks -- by linking directly to the source
  • Copyright Clearance Center: The Copyright Clearance Center is likely your best starting point if you need to license a book or journal article. The CCC offers pay-per-use permission services for academic uses, such as posting works on course management systems. For some works, the CCC can instantly grant permission online.
  • The WATCH File: Writers, Artists, and Their Copyright Holders: The WATCH File is a database of copyright contacts for writers, artists, and prominent figures in other creative fields.


Sheet Music

  • Licensing agencies: Three licensing agencies -- ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC -- together license the performance rights for the vast majority of music published in the U.S. Performance licenses cover uses related to the public performance of copyrighted music, such as concert performances or playing a musical recording in a public space. Performance licenses do not cover reproducing musical works, otherwise known as "mechanical rights." The Harry Fox Agency offers mechanical and also digital licenses (for uses such as streaming or digital downloads).
  • National Association for Music Education: Getting permission to use copyrighted music can be complicated because multiple entities (e.g. composers, performers, publishers) typically have rights to different aspects of a single work. The National Association for Music Education's Copyright Center can provide further guidance on how to navigate licensing and other music copyright issues. 


In some cases, you will not be able to determine who the copyright owner is, even after extensive research. If this is the case, you have on your hands a so-called "orphan work." Although the Copyright Office has expressed its support for new legislation to deal with the problem of orphan works, this has not yet come to pass. In the meantime, there are several Possible Solutions to evaluate if you cannot find the owner.

Image Credits: author images, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, Library of Congress; Title: 1963 - Beatle's first Music Sheet Album - Side 9 by Klaus Hiltscher via, Wellcome Library London Ephemera Collection Creative Commons License Button

3. Ask for Permission

Once you have identified the copyright owner, you then need to determine the substance of your permission request. It is important that your request clearly describe the scope of how you intend to use the work, otherwise the permission you receive may fall short of meeting your needs. For example, if you ask to use a work in a conference presentation, the permission may not include making the presentation available online, or publishing it in conference proceedings. Be sure to include all the rights you anticipate needing, and include alternatives if you are unsure of the format (e.g. print, DVD, web) in which the work will be used. If you will be using the work only for noncommercial, educational purposes, include this information as well -- many copyright holders will be more willing to grant permission if they understand that their work will be used for education.

The sample letters below can serve as your starting point:

4. Keep a record!

filing cabinet

Lastly, be sure to keep a copy of all permissions and license agreements! Having a written record can be invaluable if questions or disputes arise down the road, and allow you to demonstrate to others that you have the legal right to use the owner's work (particularly publishers, who will often require written proof that permission has been obtained).

Although getting written permission from the copyright owner is your best bet, permission does not have to be in writing. If you aren't able to get something in writing, document your conversation. You may also want to send a letter of confirmation to the owner setting out your agreement.

In some cases, you may never get a response from the copyright holder -- you may never even be able to identify who they are or how to contact them! It can be difficult to know how to proceed when you reach a dead end. Unfortunately, no matter how diligently you have tried to get permission, these efforts cannot completely eliminate the risk of infringement should you proceed to use the work. Columbia's Copyright Advisory Office has put together a helpful list of Possible Solutions for when you find yourself in this all-too-common situation.

Image Credit: Vintage File Cabinets, victoriabernal. Source: flickr. Creative Commons License Button

How to Request Copyright Permission for Course Materials

A federal court ruling reaffirmed the need to obtain permission to use copyrighted materials in college-course anthologies. Publishers want to make these materials available to you quickly and inexpensively but they need your cooperation. Whether you request permissions yourself or through the SPU Bookstore, these suggestions will speed the process. Please:

  1. Request permission at the same time you order textbooks, the earlier the better in the event your request cannot be granted and you need to substitute other materials. Publishers do not always control rights and need time to research the extent to which permission may be granted.
  1. Direct your request to the publisher's Copyrights and Permissions Department, not the author. If publishers do not control the rights, they will inform you whom to contact.
  1. Include all of the following information in your request:
  • Full name(s) of author(s), editor(s), translator(s).
  • Title, edition and volume number of book or journal.
  • Copyright date.
  • ISBN for books, ISSN for magazines and journals.
  • Numbers of the exact pages, figures and illustrations.
  • If you are requesting a chapter or more: both exact chapter(s) and exact page          numbers.
  • Number of copies to be made.
  • Whether material will be used alone or combined with other photocopied materials.
  • Name of college or university.
  • Course name and number.
  • Term and year in which material will be used.
  • Instructor's full name.
  1. Request permission whether or not works are in print.

  1. Provide your complete address and the name of (a) contact person(s) and telephone number in case there are any questions.

The SPU Bookstore can assist you and/or provide appropriate forms. The publisher's response form will provide the information about payment and fees, which are determined by the individual publisher. (Courtesy of Association of American Publishers, August 1991.)

Permission FAQs

Why do I need permission to use a work?

When a work is protected by copyright, the holder of the copyright is given a set of exclusive rights over the work, including the right to copy, distribute, perform, and adapt the work. These rights are subject to a number of exceptions, including Fair Use and exemptions for classroom teaching. Unless your use of a work meets the requirements of one of these exceptions, copyright law requires you to get permission from the copyright holder before using their work.

If I want to use a work for educational purposes, isn't that Fair Use?

Possibly, but not necessarily. Fair Use allows limited use of copyrighted works without requiring permission from the copyright holder for a number of educational purposes -- commentary, criticism, research, teaching, or scholarship. However, it is important to remember that an educational purpose alone does not mean that your use will be protected as Fair Use. Copyright law sets forth a number of fact-specific criteria that must be evaluated to determine whether a use is "Fair." Please refer to the Fair Use section of this guide for more information.

Do I need permission to show a movie in a face-to-face class?

No, you do not need permission from the copyright holder to show a copyrighted movie in a face-to-face (i.e., not online) class at SPU. This is because copyright law provides for a specific exemption that allows performances or displays of works during face-to-face teaching activities at nonprofit educational institutions, whether in the classroom or in a "similar place devoted to instruction." This exemption applies not just to movies, but to any copyrighted work. This exemption does not extend to situations where you have reason to believe that the copy of the work was "not lawfully made," e.g. an illegally copied DVD. It also does not apply to courses delivered online. For online courses, licenses for films are nearly always required. Ask your librarian about films you plan to show in your online class.

What about to make copies of course readings for my students?

First, before making copies, you should check whether course readings can be made available through the library - if the material you wish to distribute has already been licensed by the library, you will not need to worry about getting permission. If you are creating a coursepack -- whether print or electronic -- you will need to contact the SPU Bookstore to create a coursepack, and they will obtain the necessary copyright clearances.

Creating copies of course readings in situations other than Coursepacks (e.g., supplemental or newly-published articles that you wish to make available during the course of the quarter) may qualify as Fair Use. The SPU Statement of Policy on Photocopying Copyrighted Materials, part of the SPU Faculty Handbook, has guidance on applying Fair Use when making copies for classroom use.

Do I need permission to post materials on Canvas?

You do not need permission to post materials on Canvas if

  1. the material is in the public domain,
  2. the owner has already given permission through an open license, such as Creative Commons,
  3. SPU Library has a license to link to the material, or
  4. you perform a Fair Use evaluation and determine that Fair Use applies.

Please see the "Do You Need Permission?" section of this page for more information on these categories.
In situations that do not fall into one of these categories, you will need permission. This includes creating electronic coursepacks on Canvas or other course sites. SPU policy requires you to utilize the SPU Bookstore when creating print or electronic coursepacks.

Do I need permission to link to materials on the web?

Generally, merely providing links to materials on the web does not require the permission of the copyright holder. It is a good rule of thumb to use linking to provide access to copyrighted materials whenever possible, rather than posting PDFs or otherwise reproducing web materials.

Do I need to get permission in writing?

You should make a habit of getting permission in writing whenever possible. Although under the law copyright permission does not have to be written, having a record of the grant of permission offers you greater protection should questions or disputes arise in the future. Depending on how you plan to use the work, you may need documentary evidence to show others that you have the permission of the copyright holder. For example, many publishers will require written proof of permission in order to include copyrighted works in your own publication.