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English 303: Multimedia Writing: Requesting Permission

Copyright and multimedia for eBook writing

Finding the Copyright Holder

If you would like to use some copyrighted material (part of an article, photo, webpage, etc.) in something that you are working on, you can ask permission from the copyright holder.  To do this, you first need to find the copyright holder.  Hopefully, this can be easily accomplished by getting in touch with their workplace and/or publisher.

However, if you are not able to ascertain where they work or who they work for, you will need to look further.  Some other things to try to locate the copyright holder:

  • look at other work they have published to see if you can find a different employer
  • contact the school from which they graduated
  • do a Google search
  • contact a society to which they may belong, i.e., Society of Professional Journalists, etc.

Getting Permission

These websites have good overviews of the process involved in getting permission to use a copyrighted work:

The Basics of Getting Permission.
Stanford University Copyright and Fair Use

Getting Permission to Use the Work of Others. 
Citizen Media Law Project 

Sample letters requesting permission to copy.

o    Letter requesting permission to use material in a new work (Columbia University)

o    Sample written request for permission (University of Texas)

Orphan Works

An orphan work is a work that is protected by copyright but for which the copyright holder is not known or, if known, not able to be located.  As a result, it is impossible to ask permission to use part or all of the work.

The problem of orphan works has been growing due to a number of reasons:

  1. The Copyright Office no longer requires use of the copyright symbol © in order for a work to be copyrighted.   There is no longer the straightforward evidence of the notice such as "© Mary Smith 1993" and so -
  2. works no longer need to be registered with the Copyright Office.  With that source of information lost, it is harder to find a copyright holder - even if one has been identified. 
  3. The length of time for copyright protection has been extended so that it - in most cases - it covers the life of the author plus an additional 70 years, adding another wrinkle in finding authors.  As a result of these extensions, the copyright on a work may exist long after the creater of that work has passed away.  In cases like this, the descendants of the creater would hold the copyright and would need to be contacted for permission.

Although there is some discussion in copyright circles that the search for "orphan works" should be simplified or eased, at this point someone who wants to request permission to use a work must do a search for the copyright holder.

There has been proposed legislation to fix the orphan works problem but, currently, nothing has been passed.  There have also been proposals from groups outside the Congress, such as the Center for the Study of the Public Domain.   The group "Public Knowledge" also has a position on orphan works.