If there are no existing licenses that permit the use you want to make, you will need to get an explicit license from the copyright holder for what you want to do. This requires you to identify the work’s copyright holder(s) and contact them to ask for permission to use the work. That permission is a type of license.
In most situations, copyright holders can set the fee they charge for a license, and they can refuse to license a work.
Note: Purchasing the original work or a reproduction is not the same as purchasing or licensing the copyright. If you buy a painting, you own just the physical painting, not the copyright. Making one of the uses of the work protected by copyright requires a separate agreement with the copyright holder.
It is best to know exactly what you want to do with the work before contacting the rightsholder. What you want to do with the work can impact what the license will cost and who can provide the license to you. The rights for some works are split among multiple rightsholders. This is particularly common for music and film — see the later pages of this guide for more information.
Thinking about what you need before contacting the rightsholder also saves you from having to go back and get another license. For example, if you are requesting permission to use an image in a journal article, check with the journal publisher first to make sure you obtain the rights the publisher requires.
The initial copyright holder is the author (or authors) of a work. The author can then transfer all or part of the copyright. Authors often transfer copyright to companies that publish or distribute their works.
Copyright or contact information is often attached to or available with copies of the work. Published works usually contain copyright information. For books this often appears on the back of the title page. Forewords, prefaces, and other notes from the author(s) or the publisher may also contain clues about who is the author of the work for the purposes of copyright law, who holds copyright today, and how to contact them. If the work is unpublished or there are limited copies of it, the owners of physical copies of the work (such as archives, special collections libraries, or museums) may also have information that will help you to contact the copyright holder.
Writers Artists and Their Copyright Holders, commonly known as the WATCH File, is “a database of copyright contacts for writers, artists, and prominent figures in other creative fields.” It is run jointly by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Reading Library. This is an excellent place to learn more about who might hold rights, particularly for well-known works.
Many works are not registered or renewed with the U.S. Copyright Office, but the Copyright Office has records of those that are. You can search records from 1978 to the present online in the Public Catalog. For works registered or renewed before 1978, consult the Stanford Copyright Renewal Database and the Catalog of Copyright Entries. You can also search the U.S. Copyright Office’s pre-1978 records in person in Washington, D.C. or pay the U.S. Copyright Office to search those records for you. The Public Catalog also includes transfers of copyright ownership that have been recorded with the Copyright Office. However, recording transfers is voluntary; many transfers are not recorded.
The following sample permission letters can be modified for various permission requests.
Whenever possible, make your request in the format preferred by the copyright holder. Most major publishers and licensing organizations prefer to receive requests via email or webform.
Licenses may be exclusive or non-exclusive. For most teaching and scholarship purposes, you’ll be asking for a non-exclusive license, which means the rightsholder can grant the same rights to others.
Obtaining permission can take a long time, so it helps to start as early as possible.
Regardless of how you get the license, always keep copies of your correspondence, especially the permission itself.
Much of this page is adapted from the University of Michigan Library Obtaining Copyright Permission research guide, CC-BY 4.0.