How to Request Use of Copyrighted Material

By Eden Straten
You, permission, someone else's copyright-protected work
Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images

You’re editing a family reunion video and want to use hit songs as background music. Or maybe you want to set your favorite poem to song. Whenever you plan to use someone else’s work, you must first determine whether it's copyright-protected. If it is, you must determine whether using it falls under the *fair use* exception. If the work is copyright-protected and your use isn't fair, you must locate the copyright owner and request permission to use it.

Research Copyright Information

Look for a copyright notice on the packaging of a recording, the copyright page of a book, or the legal notice of the website containing the material you want to use. It should state the date of publication, author and publisher. The lack of a notice doesn't mean the work isn't copyright-protected, however. Search Copyright Office catalogs and records of registrations and transfers of ownership, or ask the Office to do the search for a fee.

Determine Whether the Work is Copyright-Protected

If the material you want to use was published in the United States before 1923, the copyright has expired and can be used freely. The length of copyright-protection for other works depends on the date of copyright. Works copyrighted in and after 1978 are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. If the creator is alive, her works remain copyright-protected. For works not created in the United States, the length of copyright protection depends on the copyright laws of the source country.

Does Your Use Come Under the Fair Use Exception?

Even if a work is copyright-protected, you might still be able to use it freely under the fair use exception. Whether your use is fair depends on all the circumstances of your use and four factors: the purpose of the use, the nature of the work used, how much of the work you intend to use, and how your use will affect the value of the work. Your use is more likely to be considered fair if it's for nonprofit or educational purposes rather than commercial purposes. It's often considered fair if the work is published and is more factual than creative, if you’re using small or less significant portions of the work, when few copies are made, and your usage has little effect on the market for the work -- whether people will still buy it.

Find and Contact the Copyright Owner

Contact the author or publisher of the work you wish to use. Contact information can usually be found on the copyright page of books or the copyright notice of recordings. If the person named isn't the current copyright owner, she may be able to refer you to the individual who is. Write that person for permission to use the work. The copyright owner will usually need to know:

Exactly which work you want to use The name or names of the author, editor, or translator The copyright date Which parts will be used How they will be used Who the audience will be Whether the material will be sold Whether your organization is commercial or nonprofit *Your name and contact information

Leaving out any key information may delay receiving permission.

About the Author

Eden Straten has extensive experience in the legal and educational fields. She holds a Juris Doctor from Boston University and has been licensed to practice law for more than 20 years.