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Copyright & Fair Use: Obtaining Permissions

Your guide to copyright, fair use, and rights and permissions from BC Library

Copyright Clearance Guidelines

When your use of a copyrighted work does not fall within the parameters of fair use, you will need to obtain copyright clearance. In order to obtain copyright clearance, you will need to identify and contact the copyright owner or owners. Remember to keep a detailed, written record of the steps you take.

Identify the copyright owner(s).

  • Beware, especially with music and media, multiple parties may hold the rights and each party must be accounted for when obtaining permission.
  • Remember, the absence of a copyright notice does not mean that the work is in the public domain.  See public domain chart.

 Contact the copyright owner(s) and secure permission.

  • Contact the owner directly, or
  • Use a collective rights organization such as the Copyright Clearance Center. A collective rights organization may be the only way to get permission in some cases.
  • Special Case--Orphan Works:  In an attempt to gain permission for a copyrighted work, you may discover that the work in question is what is known as an “Orphan Work.”  An orphan work is an entity whose copyright owner cannot be found.  This may be because the owner is unknown, not traceable, or unresponsive.  The individual or corporate body may be deceased or defunct, without reachable heirs, or merely not responding to a request for permission.  In such a case, you might conduct a risk-benefit analysis.  For a fuller explanation of orphan works and risk-benefit analysis see:


  • Request permission only for the portion of the work you need.
  • Fees are often based on how many copies will be needed and the length of time copies will be in use.
  • You may want to replace the materials with alternative works available via open access or other less restrictive licenses.
  • For Orphan Works: After an extensive search determines that that the work is an ‘orphan,” you may find that you are can reevaluate the document in light of “fair use” because it is likely that the rights holders are deceased or beyond the reach of the information community.  If there is no one to pay, the “effect on the market” (the fourth “fair use” factor) disappears.     

Here's a great site where you will find samples of permission letters:


Copyright Notice

It is imperative that you include a copyright notice and citation with all materials you use.

When you copy print materials, please be sure to include all source information. For your convenience, you may use the standardized Document Cover Sheet from the Brooklyn College Library and Academic Information Technologies as a cover page.

When you duplicate/present material electronically, you will be instructed by the software you are using to include appropriate copyright notice and citation information. The copyright notice will be embedded into the document/presentation produced.

Treatment of Orphan Works

Orphan works are defined as copyright protected works where you cannot identify a copyright owner or where you can identify the copyright owner but the owner cannot be located.  Consider the following examples:

1. You cannot identify a copyright owner
The work itself does not have a name, and you have searched through various different catalogs, databases, and other sources, according to the title or description of the work. Under copyright law, anonymous and pseudonymous works are still fully protected. Simply because you cannot find the name of the copyright owner does not mean that it is not under copyright. Nevertheless, you are left to ponder whom to ask for permission. Similarly, you may well be able to identify the original author or copyright owner, but that individual has died, or the company has gone out of business. You have not been able to track any heirs or successors.

2. You cannot locate the copyright owner
Alternatively, you have concluded that the work is protected, and you have been able to identify the likely copyright owner, but you simply cannot find that person or entity. No listing appears in any of the usual reference guides or directories. You also have conducted a search of the records of the U.S. Copyright Office, and you have found no current registration of a copyright claimant or any documentation assigning the copyright to a new owner. Perhaps the original copyright owner was a company or organization that ceased doing business years ago, and you have not been able to find any person or entity that currently holds the rights. Perhaps the copyright owner died, but the heirs are untraceable. The copyright, nevertheless, lives on.

3.  Works Released Online or through social media
Because copyright runs for a significant period of time and does not require formalities such as registration or renewal to ensure that a work is still protected, many works are often divorced from the rights information necessary to seek and obtain permission.   This is becoming an increasingly difficult issue as it relates to scholarly communications because many works are being released online or through social media without identification or rights data associated with the works. For scholars, journalists and other academics, it becomes increasingly difficult to authenticate sources in the online environment.  And, even if you wished to use the work fairly in the context of your scholarly work, you may be hard pressed to provide adequate attribution, a necessity in exercising fair use.

No Easy Fix
Since 2005, the U.S. Copyright Office has tried on several occasions to develop policy and introduce legislation into Congress to deal with orphan works adequately.  So far, none of these efforts have succeeded.   The question, therefore, remains, how can you combat and manage the growing issue of orphan works within the context of your scholarly communications?

Conduct a risk-benefit analysis
You have diligently investigated your alternatives. You do not want to change your project, and you remain in need of the elusive copyright permission. The remaining alternative is to explore a risk-benefit analysis. You need to balance the benefits of using that particular material in your given project against the risks that a copyright owner may see your project, identify the materials, and assert the owner’s legal claims against you. Numerous factual circumstances may be important in this evaluation. The “benefit” may depend upon the importance of your project and the importance of using that particular material. The “risks” may depend upon whether your project will be published or available on the Internet for widespread access. You ought to investigate whether the work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office and weigh the thoroughness of your search for the copyright owner and your quest for appropriate permission.

Undertaking this analysis can be sensitive and must be advanced with caution and with careful documentation. You may be acting to reduce the risk of liability, but you have not eliminated liability. A copyright owner may still hold rights to the material and may still bring a legal action against you, based on copyright infringement. Your good faith efforts can be helpful, but they are not necessarily protection from legal liability. Members of the Columbia University community should consult with the Copyright Advisory Office or University Office of the General Counsel for assistance with this decision.