Skip to Main Content

Copyright Basics

Provides information about U.S. copyright law, including rights of users, permission, and the public domain.

Copyright Questions?

The University of Michigan Library Copyright Office provides help with copyright questions for University of Michigan faculty, staff and students. Please email us with questions or visit our website for more information.

Legal Advice

The information presented here is intended for informational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice. If you have specific legal questions pertaining to the University of Michigan, please contact the Office of the General Counsel.

If you require legal advice in your personal capacity, the lawyer referral services operated by the Washtenaw County Bar Association and the State Bar of Michigan may be helpful to you.


If you want to use a copyrightable work that is not in the public domain in a way that would violate one of the rights of copyright holders and is not permitted by a user’s right, you must get permission from the copyright holder.

Basic information about obtaining permission is included below. For more information, you may wish to consult our guide, Obtaining Copyright Permissions.

Existing Licenses

In some cases, there may already be a license that permits the use you want to make.

  • Site licenses permit certain uses of copyrighted materials by individuals affiliated with the institution that has purchased the license. Your institution’s library is a good place to learn what works your institution has licensed and on what terms. Library Search indexes many works licensed for use by affiliates of the University of Michigan. The terms on which affiliates can use those materials are generally found on Terms of Use pages associated with the materials. For example, the Terms of Use for ARTstor can be found by entering the ARTstor database and then scrolling to the bottom of the page and clicking on the link labelled “Terms.”

  • Public licenses permit certain uses of copyrighted materials by the public at large. They include Creative Commons licenses and open source software licenses. For example, the Creative Commons licenses are all public licenses, as are licenses on the lists of free software licenses maintained by the Free Software Foundation and licenses approved by the Open Source Initiative. If the work you wish to use has been released under a public license, you do not have to seek additional permission from the rightsholder in order to do the things authorized by the license. However, you do still need to follow the license terms. For example, the license may require attribution to the original author or it may forbid commercial uses. The research guides below provide more information about the use of public licenses in academia.

New Licenses

If there are no existing licenses that permit the use you want to make, you will need to get a new license from the copyright holder. To do that, you need to identify the work’s copyright holder(s) and contact them to ask for permission to use the work.

Determine what you need

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.

Identify the rightsholder(s)

To request permission, you will need to identify the work’s rightsholder or someone who is able to license the work on the rightsholder’s behalf. For more information, see Identifying Copyright Holders.

Send your request

The following sample permission letters can be modified for various permission requests.

Whenever possible, make your request in the format preferred by the licensor. Most major rightsholders and licensing organizations prefer to receive requests via email or webform.

If there is a deadline by which you need a response, consider including it in the letter. It may improve your chances of hearing back in time. Obtaining permission can take a long time, so it helps to start as early as possible.

Keep records

Regardless of how you get the license, always keep copies of your correspondence, especially the license itself.

Copyrights Held by the University of Michigan

When the University of Michigan holds copyright in a work, university policy dictates that “the University units most closely associated with the creation of [that work] may authorize uses of [it].” In an exception to this general rule, Innovation Partnerships controls uses of certain software as well as deliverables funded by sponsored activity agreements.

Thus, to obtain permission to use a work whose copyright is held by the University of Michigan, you will need to determine what unit is most closely associated with the creation of the work you want to use. Then, you will need to find a contact person within that unit. The work itself, the university website, and the university directory are likely to be the most helpful tools for this search.

For permission to use works published by the University of Michigan Press, please send permissions requests according to the directions on its website.

Trademarks Held by the University of Michigan

For permission to use University of Michigan trademarks, including the "Block M," please see the University of Michigan Brand Standards Guide.