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A guide to copyright law as it relates to academic research, teaching, and publication.


Black and white of a monk with hands clasped in request toward another monk.

Obtaining copyright permission is the process of getting consent from a copyright owner to use their work. This is also called licensing -- by giving you permission, the copyright owner grants you a license to use their work in a particular way.

The owner is not granting you copyright to the work, only permission to use it.

Even if not legally required, getting permission can sometimes be a practical way to lower your risks and avoid potential copyright disputes.

Follow the steps below to determine if you need permission for your use and, if so, to obtain that permission.

Image Credit: Francesco Gonin, from I promessi sposi. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Copyright Permissions Workflow Chart. Plain text version follows.

To determine if you need permission for using a certain piece of material, you can follow this workflow:

  • First, does the material have a license that is available to you (e.g. licensed to NYU or with Creative Commons)?
    • If Yes, you can use it according to its license terms.
  • If it is not licensed, is it under copyright at all?
    • If No, you can use it freely.
  • If it is not licensed but does have copyright protection, does fair use apply to your use of the material?
    • If Yes, you should document your fair use analysis and then use the material.
  • If a material is not licensed, but it is copyrighted, and your use of it is not fair use, you need to request permission from the copyright holder. 

1. Determine if You Need Permission

Your first step is to determine if you need permission in order to use a work.

For instance, you do NOT need permission if:

  • the work is in the public domain → Works in the public domain are no longer protected by copyright law and may be used without permission. Cornell's Copyright Term and the Public Domain is a good tool for figuring out whether a particular work is in the public domain.
  • Open Access logo.the owner has already given permission → Many creators choose to make their work freely available for use through open access licenses. A common means to do this is through a Creative Commons license. Requirements for these open access licenses vary, so check the terms carefully before using an open access work.
  • classroom performances and displays → Section 110 of the Copyright Act permits the performance or display of works during the course of face-to-face teaching activities in the classroom. For example, you do not need permission to show a movie or display an image in an NYU course. However, the exemption does not permit you to reproduce or distribute copies of copyrighted works and it only applies to face-to-face teaching. There is a separate law for online courses.
  • NYU already has a license → NYU Libraries licenses a considerable amount of digital content for use as course materials that can be made available to students by direct linking to the source within NYU Brightspace. You can Ask NYU Libraries if material has been licensed.
  • your use qualifies as Fair Use → Refer to the Fair Use page of this guide to determine if your use is covered.

2. Identify the Copyright Owner

The next step is to identify who owns the copyright in the work.

The author is the first owner of the copyright, but the author may sell or transfer the copyright to someone else. For many works, the publisher rather than the author is the copyright holder. You can often identify the owner through a copyright notice such as "© 2010 NYU Press." However, not all copyrighted works will have a notice. 

NYU provides a number of services to assist with identifying copyright owners and securing permissions. You can use the resources listed on the right under Finding Copyright Owners and Licensing Agencies.

For NYU course readings, NYU Bookstores Coursepack Service clears copyright permissions and provides protection from liability for infringement to NYU and individual faculty members. The Coursepack Service can also be used to obtain permission to post course materials online, such as on Blackboard. 

NYU faculty members seeking permission to use recorded music or audiovisual materials from NYU Libraries can contact Bobst Library's Avery Fisher Center for Media and Music for assistance with locating rights holders and obtaining performance rights. 

3. Ask for Permission

Once you have identified the copyright owner, you then need to determine the substance of your permission request. It is important that your request clearly describe the scope of how you intend to use the work, otherwise the permission you receive may fall short of meeting your needs. For example, if you ask to use a work in a conference presentation, the permission may not include making the presentation available online, or publishing it in conference proceedings. Be sure to include all the rights you anticipate needing, and include alternatives if you are unsure of the format (e.g. print, DVD, web) in which the work will be used. If you will be using the work only for noncommercial, educational purposes, include this information as well -- many copyright holders will be more willing to grant permission if they understand that their work will be used for education.

For templates of permission letters, please see the "Sample Permissioin Letters" section of this page.

4. Keep a record!


A towering stack of filing cabinets against the sky.

Lastly, be sure to keep a copy of all permissions and license agreements! Having a written record can be invaluable if questions or disputes arise down the road, and allow you to demonstrate to others that you have the legal right to use the owner's work (particularly publishers, who will often require written proof that permission has been obtained).

Although getting written permission from the copyright owner is your best bet, permission does not have to be in writing. If you aren't able to get something in writing, document your conversation. You may also want to send a letter of confirmation to the owner setting out your agreement.

In some cases, you may never get a response from the copyright holder -- you may never even be able to identify who they are or how to contact them! It can be difficult to know how to proceed when you reach a dead end. Unfortunately, no matter how diligently you have tried to get permission, these efforts cannot completely eliminate the risk of infringement should you proceed to use the work. Columbia's Copyright Advisory Office has put together a helpful list of Possible Solutions for when you find yourself in this all-too-common situation.

Image Credit: file cabinet to heaven, t. magnum/nick p. Source: flickr. CC-BY-ND-SA Logo - Link to license info page.

Finding Copyright Owners

Library 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 Circular 22: How to Investigate the Copyright Status of Work (PDF) 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 information 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 Corporation and Swank Motion Pictures grant public performance rights for movies.

Sample Permission Letters

Below are sample letters you can use to obtain permission from a copyright owner to use his or her work. These letters can be modified to suit your specific requests.

Permission FAQs

Why do I need permission to use a work?

When a work is protected by copyright, the holder of the copyright is given a set of exclusive rights over the work, including the right to copy, distribute, perform, and adapt the work. These rights are subject to a number of exceptions, including Fair Use and exemptions for classroom teaching. Unless your use of a work meets the requirements of one of these exceptions, copyright law requires you to get permission from the copyright holder before using their work.

If I want to use a work for educational purposes, isn't that Fair Use?

Possibly, but not necessarily. Fair Use allows limited use of copyrighted works without requiring permission from the copyright holder for a number of educational purposes -- commentary, criticism, research, teaching, or scholarship. However, it is important to remember that an educational purpose alone does not mean that your use will be protected as Fair Use. Copyright law sets forth a number of fact-specific criteria that must be evaluated to determine whether a use is "Fair." Please refer to the Fair Use section of this guide for more information.

Do I need permission to show a movie in class?

No, you do not need permission from the copyright holder to show a copyrighted movie in a face-to-face class or an online course site at NYU. This is because copyright law provides for a specific exemption that allows performances or displays of works during face-to-face teaching activities at nonprofit educational institutions, whether in the classroom or in a "similar place devoted to instruction." This exemption applies not just to movies, but to any copyrighted work. This exemption does not extend to situations where you have reason to believe that the copy of the work was "not lawfully made," e.g. an illegally copied DVD.  

What about to make copies of course readings for my students?

First, before making copies, you should check whether course readings can be made available through direct links to a licensed library resource -- if the material you wish to distribute has already been licensed by the library, you will not need to worry about getting permission. If you are creating a coursepack -- whether print or electronic -- you will need to use NYU Bookstores Coursepack Service, which will obtain the necessary copyright clearances.

Creating copies of course readings in situations other than Coursepacks (e.g., supplemental or newly-published articles that you wish to make available during the course of the semester) may qualify as Fair Use. The NYU Statement of Policy on Photocopying Copyrighted Materials, part of the NYU Faculty Handbook, has guidance on applying Fair Use when making copies for classroom use.  

Do I need permission to post materials on NYU Brightspace?

You do not need permission to post materials on NYU Brightspace if (1) the material is in the public domain, (2) the owner has already given permission through an open license, such as Creative Commons, (3) NYU Brightspace has a license to link to the material, or (4) you perform a Fair Use evaluation and determine that Fair Use applies. Please see the "Do You Need Permission?" section of this page for more information on these categories.

In situations that do not fall into one of these categories, you will need permission. This includes creating electronic coursepacks on NYU Brightspace or other course sites. NYU policy requires you to utilize NYU Bookstores Coursepack Service when creating print or electronic coursepacks.  

Do I need permission to link to materials on the web?

Generally, merely providing links to materials on the web does not require the permission of the copyright holder. It is a good rule of thumb to use linking to provide access to copyrighted materials whenever possible, rather than posting PDFs or otherwise reproducing web materials.

Do I need to get permission in writing?

You should make a habit of getting permission in writing whenever possible. Although under the law copyright permission does not have to be written, having a record of the grant of permission offers you greater protection should questions or disputes arise in the future. Depending on how you plan to use the work, you may need documentary evidence to show others that you have the permission of the copyright holder. For example, many publishers will require written proof of permission in order to include copyrighted works in your own publication.