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Copyright Crash Course

A quick guide to everything you have ever wanted to know about Copyright

Finding Owners and Getting Permission

Know the ownership drill

In the good old days, copyright owners were prominently noted in the copyright notice that used to be required. For works with a copyright notice, your task is easier (at least you have a starting point). But for many works, figuring out whom to ask can be a major undertaking. Sometimes it is impossible. Nevertheless, if you keep in mind the structure we've set out below, it can provide you with a systematic way to approach the task:

  1. Identify the author(s) and contact one or more of them
  2. Ask whether they own the copyright or whether the work was work for hire
  3. Ask whether they have conveyed away any of their rights, and if so, to whom

One may research copyrights using the database at the Library of Congress. This database lists claimants and copyright ownership to works registered after 1978. Stanford University has created a database containing renewal information from up to 1963, but it only includes textual works.

Orphan works and taking risks

If you can't identify authors (or their estates) or business owners, or can't successfully contact them, you probably have an "orphan work." The vast majority of materials in our libraries and archives are in this category today -- works for which a copyright owner cannot be found. Until such time as a legislative solution emerges, those of us who wish to make uses of orphan works must ask ourselves how much risk we are willing to take that an owner we've tried to find and couldn't, will one day come out of the woodwork and exercise the law's harsh remedies to punish us for our uses. Most people are unwilling to take this chance, but some are not. Some are quietly digitizing works that seem very low risk, and providing access to them to the public. For more information about orphan works, please see digitization and orphan works.

Assuming the work you wish to use is protected, the work has not been licensed for your use online, and your use is not a fair use or otherwise exempt from liability for infringement, you need permission. Now what?

Getting permission can be difficult, but in some cases there are steps likely to yield results. The steps will vary depending on the type of work you need to use.

Copyright Clearance Center

If the work is part of a book or a journal article, check the Copyright Clearance Center ("CCC") first. The CCC offers transactional (case-by-case) permission services, as well as a subscription license that covers typical institutional use of works for the classroom of all the works in the license repertoire. Your library or copy center is probably already working with the CCC and should be able to help you. If the work you want to use is registered with the CCC, you can get permission instantly for most materials. If your institution subscribes to the academic license (UT Austin has this license) and your work is covered, you don't have to do anything.

Foreign collectives

The UK-based Copyright Licensing Agency ("CLA") offers a license for the creation, storage and exploitation of digital versions of existing print works in its repertoire. Canadian agency, Access Copyright, provides licenses for books, magazines, newspapers, and other publications.

Image archives

Not all professional organizations representing image creators will be familiar with educational needs. Some organizations may only offer licenses for commercial uses. These are a sampling of your options.

Freelance writers

The Author's Registry works with freelance writers and writers' organizations to manage copyright permissions..

Music performance

If you wish to perform a musical work, your University's license with ASCAPBMI or SESAC may cover your use. Check with your university's business office. Want to record and distribute a musical composition that has already been recorded by someone else, or synchronize music with visual images? Check with The Harry Fox Agency, Inc.

Online performances are quite complicated. They involve 3 rights rather than just one: (i) the performance right in the musical composition (see ASCAP, BMI and SESAC above), (ii) the performance right in the sound recording and (iii) the right to duplicate the musical composition (see Harry Fox Agency, above). Each of these rights must be licensed from a separate entity.

The owner of the sound recording is usually the record label. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) represents most major labels. There is also a nonprofit educational radio station exemption that covers webcasts of licensed radio broadcasts. If the statutory license or the nonprofit educational radio station exemption do not apply, you will have to get permission from each record label whose recordings you wish to webcast.

Music Research Consultants' web page contains links to publishers, record labels, music rights agencies, and more. This is a good place to gather contact information. If you know the name of an artist, album, song or label, the All-Music Guide allows you to search for more information and often links directly to the source.

Play rights

Rachel Durkin Drga, Interim Director of Texas Performing Arts, has written a very informative article about Obtaining Rights to Produce a Play or Musical or to Use Music in Live Performance. You can also check these agencies for rights information.

News archives

If the work you need to use is from a newspaper or other news organization, check the web. Many of the largest news organizations have placed archives of their back issues online.


The Motion Picture Licensing Corporation is an independent copyright licensing service exclusively authorized by major Hollywood motion picture studios and independent producers to grant umbrella licenses to nonprofit groups, businesses, and government organizations.

Movie Licensing USA, a corporate division of Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., addresses the specific movie public performance site licensing needs of schools and public libraries.

Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., is a major movie distributor and a public performance licensing agent in non-theatrical markets where feature entertainment movies are shown. Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., has exclusive distribution arrangements in many markets with most American movie producers for the motion pictures seen in theaters.

You may also need to investigate whether any rights need to be cleared that could be held by the actors, producers, writers, performers, guilds, or composers. Agent representation for living people can be found at WhoRepresents.

Difficulty identifying the owner

If the author, creator or publisher is not obvious, such as may be the case for historical photographs, architectural drawings, personal papers or other archival materials, your task may be more difficult. Try the following:

  • Check with the source of your copy of the work for any information about who owns the copyright and how to contact the owner. For example, the library where you found the materials may own the copyright or know whom to contact for permission to use the work or excerpts from it.
  • Manuscripts: Check the WATCH File, a database that contains primarily the names and addresses of copyright holders or contact persons for English-language authors whose papers are housed in whole or in part in libraries in North America and the United Kingdom.
  • Architectural works: Getting Permission to Use Archival Materials Related to Architectural Works

Contacting the Owner

If you know who the author and the publisher are, you can contact them directly. If you do not know who the publisher is, The Literary Marketplace (for books) or Ulrich's Web (for journals - requires login) may help you. 

Once you know whom to ask, writing a letter, calling or emailing are all appropriate ways to initiate contact.

Confirming authority to grant permission

Whenever it is unclear who the owner is, or if the owner is a legal entity of some kind (a business or organization), you should be sure that the person giving you permission is authorized to do so. For example, if you are negotiating with an author, question them about whether they retained copyright or whether they assigned it to their publisher. Sometimes people are unsure. If you are preparing a commercial product, you will need assurances of authority to grant permission because your publisher will expect those assurances from you.

Written permission

Ideally, your permission should be in writing and should clearly describe the scope of what you are being permitted to do. Vaguely worded permissions may not cover your intended use. Be careful here: describe what you want to do precisely and include alternatives if you are unsure of format. For example, if you are preparing a web-based multimedia product, you may wish to distribute it on physical media under some circumstances.

Permission does not have to be in writing. If you receive oral permission, precisely describe what you want to do, and then document the conversation carefully. It wouldn't hurt to send a confirming letter to the owner, asking them to initial it and return it to you if it accurately reflects your agreement.

Unidentifiable/unresponsive owner

Sometimes, even if you go through all the right steps, you may not figure out whom to ask or the owner may not respond. There truly may be no one who cares about what you do with a particular work, but the bottom line is that no amount of unsuccessful effort eliminates liability for copyright infringement. Copyright protects materials whether the owner cares about protection or not.

While it is possible that a thoroughly documented unsuccessful search for an owner would positively affect the balance of the fair use test under the fourth factor or lessen a damage award even if the court determines that there was an infringement, there are no cases addressing this issue, so it's only a theory. Because your institution is likely to be liable, along with an accused individual, for the infringements of faculty, students and staff, most institutions advise such individuals not to use works for which required permission cannot be obtained. But many institutions are beginning to look at this reaction more carefully, and may determine that at times there are important considerations favoring limited nonprofit educational use of materials that would counterbalance the risk of harm to someone's legal rights.

Openly Licensed Works

You may not need to get permission if you can find works that are either copyright free (public domain) or licensed to allow for reuse. Please see the following two guides for more information about finding openly licensed materials.