This One Simple Trick Makes Permissions Easy and Fun

Catherine Cocks's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

Getting permission to reproduce copyrighted material in your own work can be intimidating and frustrating, and most scholars don’t get much, if any, training in how to do it. You won’t be surprised to learn there is no one simple trick, but the following tips aim to demystify the process and make it easier to manage.

Note: These tips are based on US copyright law. Although there is an international convention on copyright, intellectual property regimes vary by country. If your publisher is based outside the United States, check with your editor about the law governing it.


1. Figure out what you’re likely to need. What kinds of material are you going to want to reproduce in your work—photographs of contemporary artworks? Stanzas of poetry? Your own previously published material? Excerpts from private letters? Quotations from official documents? Eighteenth-century satirical cartoons? Instagram posts? Tweets? Each of these items entails different considerations, and this short post can’t address all of them (also no one has figured out the copyright status of social media posts yet). The way to start is to take your specific questions to some of the many resources on copyright.

  • First, see if your main scholarly society has a guide to copyright tailored to your discipline. Some examples:

  • Second, note the emphasis on fair use. This provision of US copyright law outlines when you can reproduce copyrighted material without asking permission. Many scholarly reuses qualify as fair use, so understanding it can save you many hours of work and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

  • Third, if you can’t find a discipline-specific guide or if that guide doesn’t answer all your questions, take a look at major published resources, such as the Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. They include chapters on requesting permission to use copyrighted works. There’s no shortage of more detailed guides, either.

  • Fourth, see if your library offers copyright tutorials or services, or look online for library guides to this information. The Elephant will have a post on copyright from a librarian later this month.

  • Fifth, consider whether the material you want to use is old enough to have entered the public domain—in other words, the copyright has expired. It’s complicated, but most items copyrighted in the United States through 1924 are in the public domain as of 2020, and US federal government documents are always in the public domain. The Cornell University Library offers a handy guide. For photographs of artwork in the public domain that museums have made freely available, see this list from the Creative Law Center.

  • Sixth, if you can’t figure out who holds the copyright, see Bentley University Library’s concise overview of orphan works, and check out resources like the Harry Ransom Center’s WATCH (Writers, Artists, and Their Copyright Holders) database.


2. Start early. Getting permissions can take a long time. If you leave this task until a week before your manuscript is due, you’re probably going to miss your deadline. At small museums, archives, and publishers, handling requests to reprint material is often only one part of someone’s job, and each request may require careful research to determine whether the institution actually holds the rights along with the work itself. It may take weeks or months for them to get back to you. At big institutions the process is likely to be fully or partly automated. Look for an online form and use it wherever possible. Also check out organizations like the Copyright Clearance Center and the Publishers’ Licensing Services, which offer licenses for works copyrighted by hundreds of publishers. A few quick searches on their sites may save you hours of time submitting requests to separate companies.


3. Budget for it. Your publisher is not very likely to cover these costs, and while some kind individuals and organizations will allow you to use their content for free, others need to charge to cover the costs of creating and preserving the material they have. The right to reprint some forms of content—particularly contemporary art by major artists and popular song lyrics—may be very expensive, as may material from some major newspapers and magazines. Nonprofit museums and archives, especially if owned by the federal or state governments, tend to charge less. Many rights holders offer discounts for not-for-profit publishers or scholarly reuse, so it’s worth including this information in your request if it applies.


4. Read the grants of permission. Once you get licenses from the rights holders, read them carefully, even though they are often dense legalese in small fonts, to make sure you’re getting what you need.

  • First, make sure you get the specific rights your publisher needs in order to publish and distribute your book. Your press should be able to give you a guide to its expectations or a standard request form stating which rights it must have. Things to look for: limits on the language of publication, geographic markets, print run (number of units that can be printed), editions (e.g., print only, e-rights, cloth only, paper only), and the duration of the grant of permission (e.g., only five years), among other things. Some limits would so constrain the publisher that your press will refuse to accept them. If you’re not sure, ask your editor.

  • Second, make sure the grant of permission allows you to use the copyrighted content as you intend to. For example, museums may prohibit you from cropping or otherwise altering an image, or they may require you to share proofs of the reproduced work with museum staff before publishing.


5. Don’t pay unless you’re sure. It’s a good idea to wait until your manuscript has gone through peer review or been formally accepted for publication so that you know exactly which items of copyrighted content will be published in the book or article. You also want to be sure the license includes the rights your publisher needs (see #4). In the case of art, be very sure that you understand your publisher’s quality criteria and that the rights holder will be providing you with files that meet those criteria. Museums and archives often charge an additional fee for providing high-resolution files, so if the art you need is in the public domain, it’s worth looking at that list on the Creative Law Center website to see if you can download high-resolution files for free.


6. Be sure you include full credits in your captions. Many rights holders require users to use specific language, called the credit line, in citing the work, and by signing the form, you have agreed to use it. The rights holders probably won’t sue you if you don’t, but they could, or they could insist you pay more money, or they could just say no the next time you ask for permission to reprint their material.


7. Keep good records. If your publisher gave you a permissions log or art inventory form, use it to record which rights you have for which copyrighted items. This log will help ensure you have what you need. It will also enable your press to quickly make sure it has what it needs to put your manuscript into production. If you don’t fill it out, a long list of questions from your press is guaranteed to pop up in your inbox just when you are celebrating having finished your manuscript. Resolving these issues will take time, and your manuscript can’t go into copyediting until they’re taken care of. Just fill in the log. You’ll be glad you did.


8. Send your publisher copies. Your publisher needs to see all of the grants of permission—the ones that are fully executed, with signatures—including all the terms and conditions at the same time as you send in the final manuscript. Even if you haven’t read the fine print about cropping and use in marketing materials, your publisher has to. If you don’t send the terms and conditions, your publisher will ask for them. Save yourself the hassle.


9. Make a note about gratis copies. Many rights holders will require you to send them one or two (or more) free copies of the publication. As with the credit line, you’ve agreed to send them when you signed the license. Some publishers require authors to fulfil this requirement, whereas other presses will supply the free copies. If you’re not sure, ask your editor.


10. Swear never to incorporate content requiring permission in anything you write in the future. Know that you will break this promise. See #1.

Have something to say on this topic? Reply to this post or email the Elephant about writing for us. We welcome submissions from stakeholders on all sides of scholarly publishing.