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.
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 have determined that you require permission from the copyright holder in order to make a particular use of an in-copyright work, there are two options to consider:
Relying on an existing license that covers your use, or
In some cases, there may already be a license that permits the use you want to make.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The following sample permission letters can be modified for various permission requests.
Sample Permission Letter: Request to distribute copies in a course
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.
Regardless of how you get the license, always keep copies of your correspondence, especially the license itself.
In most situations, copyright holders can set the fee they charge for a license, and they can refuse to license a work. Licenses granted in such situations are called voluntary licenses. In a few situations, there are compulsory licenses available. Compulsory licenses are also called statutory licenses. When a compulsory license is available, anyone can license the work for that particular type of use by paying a predetermined fee. In the United States, such licenses are available for recording artists who record a cover of an earlier artist’s song. They are also available for cable companies that retransmit over-the-air broadcasts.
Another characteristic of a license is whether it is exclusive or non-exclusive. Exclusive licenses give the licensee exclusive rights. If you get an exclusive license to a particular right, the licensor cannot license that right to anyone else. For example, it is common for film studios to get exclusive licenses to produce screen adaptations of novels. In contrast, non-exclusive licenses allow the licensor to grant the same rights to more than one party. For example, when a theater licenses the rights to screen a movie, the license is often non-exclusive. The rightsholder can license other theaters to screen the movie at the same time.
Blanket licenses are another important type of license. They give a licensee the right to use all of the works licensed by a particular organization. In the United States, blanket licenses are most commonly associated with the music industry. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC provide blanket licenses for their catalogs of musical works.
Purchasing the original work or a reproduction is not the same as purchasing or licensing the copyright. If you buy a painting, you own just the physical painting, not the copyright. Getting a copyright transfer or license requires a separate agreement with the copyright holder.