Portland State University Copyright Guide: Getting Permission

How do I get permission to reproduce or disseminate someone else's copyrighted work?

After you've determined the copyright status of a work and have completed a fair use analysis, you may find that you will need to seek permission from the copyright holder to use their work.

Procedures for Securing Permission

Step 1: Contact the Copyright Owner

Step 2: Secure Permission and Write an Effective Letter

Step 3: Keep a Record




Once you have identified the owner or owners, contact them to request permission.

Publishers often have websites that prescribe a method for contacting the copyright owner, so search the website for a permissions department or contact person. Be sure to confirm the exact name and address of the addressee, and call the person or publishing house to confirm the copyright ownership. Various collective rights organizations are sometimes able to facilitate granting permissions on behalf of owners. For a list of these organizations and more information, see Resources at the end of this section.

If the copyright owner is an individual, you will need to do the usual Internet and telephone searches to find the person. Be ready to introduce yourself and to explain carefully what you are seeking.


  • 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., Columbia 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.


A “nonexclusive” permission may be granted by telephone or handshake, but an “exclusive” permission or a transfer of the copyright must be in writing and signed by the copyright owner. In all cases, a clearly written document with a signature is useful to confirm exactly what is permitted.

Some copyright owners furnish their own permission form that may be downloaded from a website. If the copyright owner does not provide a permission agreement form, you may use one of the forms listed at the end of this section under Resources, and follow these important pointers when drafting your own permission letter.

The Letter:

A most effective letter will include detailed information concerning your request for permission to use the work. Be sure to include the following pertinent information:

Who: Introduce yourself. Tell who you are and perhaps include a brief summary of your credentials. For example: “I am a professor of history at Columbia University and am the author of several books on American history.”

What: Be as specific as possible when you cite and describe the work you wish to use. If you plan to use the entire work, say so. If you need only part, give the details. For example: “I would like permission to reproduce pages 113 through 142 of [full citation to book].” You may need to be more detailed or include copies of the material, especially if you are using photographic images or sound or film clips.

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, the permission you obtain is limited by its own terms. For example, if you secure permission to include a video clip in a multimedia project for your own classroom teaching, the permission may not include sharing the project with colleagues, posting it to your website, or selling 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 use the work, whether one semester or indefinitely. Some owners may be wary of granting permission for extended periods of time or for dates far in the future, but if that is what you need, go ahead and ask.

Where and How: Include information about how and where the work will be used. Such uses may involve classroom copies, reserves, coursepacks, password protected online displays, etc. Include the exact or estimated number of copies that you wish to make or the number of uses intended.

Why: Tell why you are contacting that person or entity for permission. For example: “I am writing to you, because I believe your company acquired the company that originally published the book.” Another example: “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.


Sometimes you need to be patient and persistent, and sometimes the owner responds quickly. In any event, the reply can take any number of possibilities:

Permission Granted. Great news. Move to Step 3.

Permission Denied. Find out why. Maybe you can negotiate a better result. In any event, you may need to change your plans or look for alternative materials.

Permission Granted, but at a Cost. The copyright owner may charge a fee for the permission. You might obtain a lower fee if you change your plans, e.g., by copying fewer pages from the book or making fewer copies of the work. Sometimes copyright owners require their own permission form. Read it carefully. The form may impose limits or include legal constraints (“You agree to be bound by the law of Illinois”) that are not acceptable to you. The decision to accept will be up to you, your counsel or supervisors, and your budget.


Keep a copy of everything. If you successfully obtain permission, keep a copy of all correspondence and forms. Also, keep a detailed record of your quest to identify and locate the copyright owner. Why keep these records? In the unlikely event that your use of the work is ever challenged, you will need to demonstrate your good efforts. That challenge could arise far in the future, so keep a permanent file of the records. Moreover, you might need to contact that same copyright owner again for a later use of the work, and your notes from the past will make the task easier.

What If I Reach a “Dead End”?

What can you do if you come to a “dead end” in your quest for obtaining permission for the use of a particular work? If you cannot find the owner or you are getting no reply, your work may be an “orphan work.” 

Adapted from Kenneth D. Crews, formerly of Columbia University Copyright Office, used under a CC BY license.

For a more comprehensive discussion of getting permission, see Stanford University's Copyright and Fair Use site's 'Getting Permission' section. 

Model Permission Letters

Template for a permission letter from University of Texas Libraries. (Word docx)

Template for use of a video (from Columbia University Copyright Office)

Template for use of a text (from Columbia University Copyright Office)


Finding Copyright Owners

card catalog

Identifying and finding copyright owners can be a difficult task, but there are many resources that can help with the search.

The Copyright Office's Online Catalog contains copyright information for post-1978 works that were registered with the Office. For pre-1978 works, the Office's registration records are available in hard copy form.

The Copyright Office publication How to Investigate the Copyright Status of Work has information on how to determine the copyright status of a work using the Office's resources.

WATCH--Writers, Artists, and Their Copyright Holders--is a database providing copyright and contact informaiton for a number of individuals in the creative field.

The National Association for Music Education's Copyright Center can provide guidance on how to navigate licensing and other copyright issues for musical works.

Licensing Agencies

Licensing agencies allow potential users of copyrighted works to purchase licenses without having to contact the copyright owner directly. 

Copyright Clearance Center offers pay-per-use permission services for academic uses of books, journal articles, and other literary works, such as posting works on course management systems. For some works, the CCC can instantly grant permission online.

Three licensing agencies -- ASCAPBMI, 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.

Harry Fox Agency offers mechanical licenses for the reproduction and distribution of musical works. This includes digital licenses for uses such as streaming or digital downloads.

The Motion Picture Licensing CorporationMovie Licensing USA, and Swank Motion Pictures grant public performance rights for movies.

Image Credit: Photograph of Agricola's score "Fortem virili" on LastFM by Tarkovsky86