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Copyright Resources to Support Publishing and Teaching

A guide for faculty, staff, and students at Penn about how to obtain, manage, and understand copyright issues for their work

When should I consider seeking permission to use in-copyright work?

This page provides resources for contacting a rights-holder to copy, share, remix, or adapt an in-copyright work in your own teaching and scholarship. 

Seeking permission from a rights-holder may reduce the risks associated with a project if it is unclear if the proposed reproduction or public distribution you would like to make of an in-copyright work is permitted under U.S. copyright law.  Requesting permission is not necessary if the work you would like to borrow from is in the public domain, not subject to copyright-protection in the first instance, if an existing Library license allows for your use, or if there is an exception under copyright law that clearly supports your intended use, for example, the use is a fair use.

Where the associated rights are unclear or the intended distribution of a work is broad (for example, where the end product is designed to be shared without restriction online), seeking permission for your use may be the lowest cost avoider.  If you seek permission and are affirmatively denied by the rights-holder, you may find the need to regroup or re-imagine your project to avoid the attendant risks or to make it more likely that your intended use of the material would qualify as a fair use.  If you proceed with your intended project without change after permission is affirmatively denied, it is more likely your intended use will turn into a dispute with the rights-holder.

How do I obtain permission to incorporate copyrighted material into my work?

  • Step 1 - identify the copyright owner of the quotation, image, video, audio recording, or other copyrighted material that you would like to use.
    • The owner may be the poster of the content on a website, an individual author, or the publisher.  Look for context clues including  the (c) symbol on the materials you wish to use, gutter credits on any images, or any licensing or copyright management information that is included with the original content.  For books, this information can typically be found on the copyright notice page that is included with the work.  For online journal content, copyright ownership information can typically be found at the top of the article in the introductory text, as a footnote to the article, or is sometimes available in an online tab labeled "reproductions" or "permissions". 
    • If you are using material from a library or an archival institution, this institution may not be the rights-holder.  They may however, know who you should contact.
    • U.S. Copyright Office records include information about registered copyrights.  To the extent that an author has registered their copyright interest in their work, you may be able to identify the copyright-holder via the public facing records of the U.S. Copyright Office.   Please keep in mind that registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is permissive, and not required.
  • Step 2 - contact the copyright owner, identify yourself and the proposed use you would like to make of their work, and request permission for your intended use. 

    • The more details you provide in your request, the more likely it is that you will receive a timely response.  For example, it is clearer to say " My name is X.  I teach at Y Institution. I am writing to request permission to reproduce the material in your book [insert full book citation], on pages 13-24 on my course Canvas page for the Fall 2020 semester.  The material will be removed after the course is completed, and students will not be able to access it afterwards.  Students will be expected to use the material as the basis for an in-class presentation that will be recorded but not distributed outside of the students and instructors of the course.  Do I have your permission to proceed with this intended use? "  as opposed to "I would like to use your book in my class".

    • Sometimes the copyright owner has their own preferred form or method for receiving and processing a request, make sure to closely read and follow the instructions to increase the odds that you receive a reply.  If the copyright owner has a website, you can sometimes find these guidelines in the "contact us" tab, of the website, the terms and service or copyright policy of the website, or by reading the FAQ on the website.
    • Budget yourself plenty of time to correspond with the rights-holder and secure the rights that you need.  Unless you are contacting a major-rights holder, it is unlikely that you will receive an instantaneous response.

    • Treat permissions like citations, and keep track of them as you go.

  • Step 3 - document the response of the rights holder, preserve correspondence (this includes any email / letter exchanges, permissions forms or research you have conducted to identify the rights holder.

    • Calendar the day you initially reached out, and set yourself reminders to follow up if you do not receive a response. 

    • Sometimes the answer from the rights-holder will be "no".  In such cases you should carefully consider your alternatives, and how you might limit your request or adjust your proposed use to avoid a copyright conflict.

Additional Resources

  • Kansas State University has additional resources and forms to help you identify rights holders and document the steps you have taken to complete your due diligence. See
  • Columbia also has a robust suite of materials, including step-by-step tips, and model permissions forms for video content, text, and material in a course site such as Canvas.  See

What about fair use? Can I rely on that instead of seeking permission?

The U.S. copyright doctrine of "fair use” allows individuals to incorporate, remix, adapt limited amounts of an copy in-copyright work in certain circumstances without seeking the permission of the original copyright holder. 

There are four statutory factors to consider if you are evaluating whether or not your use is a "fair use" and would qualify for this exception:

"(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work."

  • Some questions to ask that may help in determining whether a use is "fair use" would include"
  1. Are you using the material for educational or non-profit  purposes? 
    • Nonprofit educational purposes are typically viewed more favorably under fair use than are for-profit motives.
    • Is the use you are intending to make ” transformative?”  In other words, are you creating something new or adding new meaning to the work or are you simply reproducing the original material in full without changing it or adding anything to it?
    • While nonprofit educational uses are more likely to qualify as "fair" the inquiry does not stop here.  You must view all factors in turn and make a determination on balance.
  2. How much of the original work are you using?
    • Are you using only portions of the in-copyright book, video clip, or image?
    • Utilizing limited portions of a work that are tailored to your purpose is viewed more favorably under fair use than using large portions of material without restriction.   
  3. Is the work you are borrowing from creative or purely factual? 
    • Generally the use of factual works is viewed more favorably than the use of creative works because creative works are closer to the core of what copyright protects.
  4. How will your intended use affect the potential market for the work? 
    • Will the copyright holder be financially harmed by your use of the material? 
    • Is their a robust licensing market for the original work? 
    • Does the copyright-owner typically charge individuals to make uses similar to your proposed use?
    • Will your intended use of the work supplant the need for others to purchase the original work? 

Need help?

For further assistance with copyright issues, contact your subject specialist, or consult with the Libraries' Copyright Advisor


For questions about use of materials on reserve, contact Van Pelt Course Reserves or your departmental library.


The purpose of this guide is to provide resources and information for resolving copyright questions. This research guide is for educational purposes only, and is not legal advice.

User Tips

  • Fair use is very fact specific, and small differences in the facts can make a large difference in the outcome of the analysis. 
  • Fair use can be unclear.  It may make sense to seek permission depending on your target audience / how your end work will be presented.
  • All academic and scholarly uses are not presumptively fair uses.  
  • Each factor must be viewed in turn, and given its due weight. 
  • All factors do not need to weigh in your favor for your use to qualify as "fair" but the more factors you meet, the more likely it is that your use, on balance, qualifies as fair use. 
  • For More information about how the House and Senate Committees envisioned how fair use should be enacted within the courts, read these reports from committees in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
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