Getting Permissions

August 2004
by Lee Wilson

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Lawyer Lee Wilson has written several books on intellectual-property law, including The Copyright Guide: A Friendly Guide to Protecting and Profiting from Copyrights, and Fair Use, Free Use, and Use By Permission: How to Handle Copyrights in All Media, both published by Allworth Press. She lives and works in Nashville.


Although copyright law does not require nonexclusive licenses of copyright to be in writing (and most permissions to use copyrighted works fall into this category), it is wise to get written permissions, if for no other reason than to document the scope of each agreement.

Of course, you won’t need permission if the work you want to use is no longer protected by copyright, so make your first step figuring out whether the copyright in a work has expired. For definitive information on how to do this, consult the Copyright Office Circular 22, “How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work” at www.copyright.gov, or by calling the Copyright Office Forms and Publications Hotline at 202-707-9100.

When you determine that a work you want to use is still protected by copyright, use the form letter below–referring to the accompanying notes–to create a single document that both requests permission and provides a mechanism for receiving it.

Robert Reade [1]
Bifocal Books
726 Edgemont Avenue
Montclair, New Jersey 94202

August 30, 2004

Ms. Lulu Bluestocking [2]
630 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10021

Dear Ms. Bluestocking, [3]

We publish scholarly nonfiction books, [4] and we are planning to publish a critical biography of your late friend Marshall Litterateur [5] by Timothy Wilson St. Charles.

In this connection, I am writing to request your permission to quote from your letters to Mr. Litterateur between the years 1949 and 1951. [6] Your kind donation of these letters to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin has made it possible to gain a more complete picture of Mr. Litterateur’s life and writings during those years. [7]

I have attached to this letter a list of the excerpts from your letters that we would like to quote in the book. [8] You will note that in any instance where you mentioned a person who is still living, we refer to that person in the excerpt as “Miss A” or “Mr. B” in order to preserve her or his privacy, as well as yours. [9] Similarly, you will note that we have not included in the excerpts we are requesting permission to publish any material that is not of legitimate interest to literary scholars; specifically, in three of the excerpts that appear on the third page of the attachment we have omitted several passages of a purely personal nature that could possibly embarrass your son or Mr. Litterateur’s grandchildren. [10]

I also enclose photocopies of several photographs from the collections of the Harry Ransom Center. I believe that the first four of these photographs were taken by you at your country house in Connecticut during the six years that Mr. Litterateur spent his summers with you there. We want to include these photos in the book and need your permission to reproduce them. [11] We also need your consent to the publication of the two photos of you with Mr. Litterateur, one in your parlor at Stonehaven and one on the front porch there, photocopies of which are also enclosed. [12] These photographs were taken by your and Mr. Litterateur’s mutual friend Paul Clifford, who, as owner of the copyrights in those photographs, has given me permission to publish them in the book. [13]

I enclose an author bio attesting to Timothy Wilson St. Charles’ reliability and competence as a biographer. Perhaps you have seen his previous book, a biography titled Bon Mots: The Life and Works of Carolyn T. Wilson. [14]

If you will consent to our request to reprint the excerpts from your letters to Mr. Litterateur listed on the attachment to this letter and the photos described above and enclosed in the form of photocopies, please countersign this letter in the space below reserved for your signature and return one copy of the letter and excerpts list to me in the enclosed, self-addressed, stamped envelope. [15] I am sending two copies of this letter and its attachment so that you may retain a copy for your files. [16]

Thank you for considering my request.

Sincerely,

Robert Reade [17]

Agreed and accepted:

Lulu Bluestocking

________________________________________ [18]

________________________________________

Copyright Owner Date of Signature

  1. Use stationery pre-printed with your name and address.
  2. Insert the name of the owner of the copyright in the work or works you want permission to use. This person may be the author of those works, as in this example, or may instead be the publisher or heir or executor of the estate of the author. To find out who owns a copyright if the information isn’t available in the source, start with the Copyright Office–www.copyright.gov/records–or hire the Copyright Office to search its records for you at $75 an hour, which may give you more reliable results than a do-it-yourself effort. The Copyright Office publication “How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work” and Circular 23, “The Copyright Card Catalog and the Online Files of the Copyright Office,” available online or mailed to you without charge from the Copyright Office, will give you more information about searching the records of the Copyright Office.
  3. Insert the name of the person to whom the letter is addressed.
  4. Briefly describe your project.
  5. Describe your project here.
  6. Describe your source material as specifically as possible. Limiting the scope of your request to include only material that you may actually use may make it easier to get permission.
  7. Explain where and how access to the materials occurred.
  8. Again, be as specific as possible about the material you want to use. The narrower the request, the more likely it is to be granted.
  9. If it is possible to obscure the identity of living people who are mentioned in previously unpublished materials, such as the fictitious letters that are the subject of this permission letter, it may be desirable to do so. The owners of such materials may be reluctant to have their comments about identifiable living people published during their lifetime.
  10. Similarly, the owners of copyright in unpublished materials may wish to avoid causing pain or embarrassment to their own or others’ families by allowing the disclosure of their personal affairs; gaining permission to quote from unpublished materials may depend on your willingness and ability to shield the author of those materials and other concerned people.
  11. The owner of the copyright in a photograph, under ordinary circumstances, is the photographer. Permission from the copyright owner is required to publish even snapshots of friends and relatives such as these. If a photograph depicts someone who is a public figure, such as the man who is the subject of the biography discussed in this form permission letter, it is not necessary to obtain permission from that person (or that person’s heirs) for the use of the person’s image in any noncommercial context.
  12. However, in the situation portrayed in this form permission letter, the woman to whom the letter is addressed and who appears in two of the photos is a private individual who can and may object to the publication of photographs of herself. (A detailed discussion of the law of privacy and publicity appears in my book, The Advertising Law Guide, from Allworth Press.)
  13. Again, it is necessary to obtain permission from the photographer to publish his or her photographs.
  14. A track record and association with credible institutions can only bolster the chance that the requested permission will be granted.
  15. Since this portion of the letter recites your proposed course of action and asks for the consent to that course of action, it is very important to use language that states exactly what you want permission to do. Any vague language may cast doubt on what was agreed to.
  16. It is best to make it as easy as possible to say “yes” to your request. This means that you should not expect the person you’re addressing to photocopy it or type an envelope to return it to you.
  17. Your signature on the letter will serve to demonstrate your agreement to abide by whatever conditions on the use of the materials you have proposed.
  18. Leave this space blank for the signature of the person who countersigns the letter. The signature of that person at the bottom of the letter transforms your proposal (to use and publish certain materials, on stated conditions) into an agreement between you.

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