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This guide is intended to help provide a general overview of copyright issues for SVSU faculty and students.


It is likely, over the course of  your teaching, education, or research, that you will come to a scenario where you want to use someone else's copyrighted works. If you have already considered whether or not you can make a fair use argument, and have decided that you cannot, you must then take the necessary steps to ask for permission from the rights holder. 

Steps to Obtaining Permission

Step One: Determine the Copyright Holder

To begin the process, you must determine who holds the copyright on the work. Many resources state this openly, as it is often the publisher who holds the copyright to a work. Such notices will say things such as "© Generic Press" or "copyright by Jane Doe, 2018." If you are fortunate enough to locate such notices, from there the way forward is simple - you must contact the publisher or the author (whoever is listed) and request permission. In some cases, the copyright may have since been passed on to another individual or entity, which will in turn require additional research. It is also possible that the original copyright holder has died, in which case you will likely need to locate any living heirs who may have inherited control of the copyright(s). 

Unfortunately, the way forward is not always simple, and often times works will not include a copyright notice - particularly in the case of works that are older or for materials such as audio or photograph collections - items where attaching a copyright notice may be difficult. You should make every reasonable attempt to locate the copyright holders of these "orphaned works" prior to using them, and should make note to document all of your efforts to locate the rights holder. Using these works without locating the copyright holder and receiving permissions is a risk and may be violating copyright law. 

Step Two: Make Contact

Once you believe that you have successfully identified the copyright holder for the work you wish to use, you must then make contact with the individual or organization. For large organizations, such as publishers, this contact is often straightforward - many have websites that contain information for their permissions department, a specific contact person, or an email account that accepts requests. 

For private individuals, internet and telephone searches may help to yield contact information that can be used to reach out. Websites such as may prove useful in helping to locate the descendants of authors who have died. 

You should always be certain to confirm that the individual or organization you contact does, in fact, hold the copyright to the work you wish to use before proceeding to send a formal request for permission. 

Step Three: Request Permission

Once you have made contact, the next step is formally requesting permission to use the work in the ways you intend. You should always make sure that you obtain permission in writing from the rights holder, specifically outlining the ways in which you have been granted permission to use the work. Some organizations may make this easy, by offering standard permission or licensing agreements. However, your individual circumstances may require you to send a detailed letter outline exactly which permissions you are requesting. A general rule of thumb is to remember to include all of the vital information the rights holder may need to make an informed decision - "who, what, when, where, why, and how." 

  • Who - Always make sure to include a brief introduction to who you are, and include any relevant credentials.
    i.e. "My name is John Smith and I am a Professor of Sociology at SVSU." 

  • What - Be very specific in what resource you wish to use and what you wish to do with it. Include as many details as you can, including exact citations of the resource, page numbers, etc.
    i.e. "I am requesting permission to reproduce pages 1-50 of your book [specific citation]."

  • Where - Clearly state where you intend to use the work you are requesting permissions for. The more context you can provide, the more likely the copyright holder will be able to make an informed decision about whether or not they are comfortable with the proposed use. 
    i.e. "I intend to use the passage as a course reading in my Introductory Sociology class,"

  • When - Demonstrate clearly how long you intend to make use of the work. Many rights holders will be reluctant to grant indefinite use, so the more specific you can be the better. 
    i.e. "The resource will be available for use by the students throughout the duration of the class, which will last from January until May of 2019." 

  • How - Explain specifically how you intend to use the work. Will the use be commercial, or non-commercial? Will it be for educational purposes or for personal uses? Is it for in-person instruction or distance learning? Will it be reproduced in physical copies, or digitally? Etc. The more specific you are, the better. Just remember that if you ask permission to use it in one context, such as in your classroom, you may not in turn be able to share the resource with your colleagues as part of a presentation. You must ask for permission for all of the intended ways you wish to use the work. 
    i.e. " The resource will be used for non-commercial, educational purposes. I intend to distribute physical copies to the ten students in my class, and the work will also be available for them to download off of our course page. Only students enrolled in the course will have access to the replication." 

  • Why - Finally, be sure to explain why you are contacting them specifically for permission. 
    i.e. "I am requesting permission from you because I believe that your company received the copyrights from the author in 2003." - or - "I am writing to you because I believe you to be the daughter of the original author, and thus possess the copyrights to the work since her death."  


Step Four: Wait

Sometimes, the copyright holders respond quickly, approving or refusing your request. Other times, the response may be delayed or not forthcoming at all. If that is the case, you may need to pursue alternative forms of making contact. Sometimes contact information changes, and you may not have the most accurate information. Persistence is key in cases such as this. 

Step Five: Results

Once you have received a response, your way forward depends on the response granted. If permission has been granted with no conditions - great! You can proceed according to the terms outlined in your agreement. If permission was denied, it may be the time to follow up and ask why the request was refused. Often times, with negotiation, an agreement can still be reached. In some cases, permission will only be granted with conditions - such as payment, legal constraints imposed by another state or country, etc. It is up to you at that point whether or not the conditions are acceptable. 

Adapted from Asking for Permission: Copyright Advisory Service by Dr. Kenneth D. Crews is licensed under CC BY. 4.0.

Resources for Obtaining Permission

A number of resources have been created to assist in helping to locate individuals who hold the copyrights to orphaned works. 

For Current Works: 

For Older Works: