A Basic Guide to Getting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter

If you want to use copyrighted material in your own published work (whether a print book, magazine, or online venue), then it may be necessary to request formal permission for its use. And whether you really need to request permission depends on whether your use would fall under fair use guidelines.

Determining what’s fair use is a gray area, and depends on your risk tolerance. To eliminate all possible risk, then it’s best to either ask for permission or eliminate use of the copyrighted material in your own work. Here’s a flowchart that can help you evaluate what you might need to ask permission for.

Do I need to request permission for publication

 

Two important caveats about this chart

  • Nothing can stop someone from suing you if you use their copyrighted work in your published work.
  • The only way your use of copyright is tested is by way of a lawsuit. That is, there is no general policing of copyright. Therefore, how you handle copyrighted content depends on how risk averse you are. If you decide not to seek permission because you plan to use a fair use argument, be prepared with the best-possible case to defend your use of the copyrighted content in the event that you are sued.

If you’re concerned about your risk, you can also search for the rights owner’s name and the keyword “lawsuit” or “copyright” to see if they’ve tried to sue anyone. However, just because someone hasn’t sued yet doesn’t mean they won’t sue you.

If you seek permission, you need to identify the rights holder

Once you’ve decided to seek permission, the next task, and one of the most difficult, is identifying who currently holds the copyright or licensing to the work. It will not always be clear who the copyright holder is, or if the work is even under copyright. Here are your starting points.

  • First, verify the actual source of the text. Sometimes writers use quotes from Goodreads or other online sources without verifying the accuracy of those quotes. (As someone who is misattributed on Goodreads, I can confirm: people are misattributed all the time.) If you don’t know the source, and you don’t know the length of the source work, and you don’t know if what you are quoting is the “heart” of the work, then you are putting yourself at risk of infringement.
  • If you’re seeking permission to quote from a book, look on the copyright page for the rights holder; it’s usually the author. However, assuming the book is currently in print and on sale, normally you contact the publisher for permission. You can also try contacting the author or the author’s literary agent or estate. (Generally, it’s best to go to whomever seems the most accessible and responsive.)
  • If the book is out of print (sometimes you can tell because editions are only available for sale from third parties on Amazon), or if the publisher is out of business or otherwise unreachable, you should try to contact the author, assuming they are listed as the rights holder on the copyright page.
  • You can also check government records. Most published books, as well as other materials, have been officially registered with the US Copyright Office. Here is an excellent guide from Stanford on how to search the government records.
  • For photo or image permissions: Where does the photo appear? If it’s in a newspaper, magazine, or an online publication, you should seek permission from the publication if the photo is taken by one of their staff photographers or otherwise created by staff. If you’ve found the photo online, you need to figure out where it originated from and/or who it’s originally credited to. (Try using Google Image Search.) When in doubt, seek permission from the photographer, keeping in mind that many photographers work through large-scale agencies such as Getty for licensing and permissions. Photo permissions can get complex quickly if they feature models (you may need a model release in addition to permission) or trademarked products. Here is an excellent, in-depth guide if you need it: Can I Use That Image?

Generally, you or your publisher will want nonexclusive world rights to the quoted material. “Nonexclusive” means you’re not preventing the copyright owner from doing whatever they want with the original material; “world rights” means you have the ability to distribute and sell your own work, with the quoted material, anywhere in the world, which is almost always a necessity given the digital world we live in.

Also, permission is generally granted for a specific print run or period of time. For example, if you seek permission for a 5,000-copy print run, you’ll need to secure permission a second time if you go back to press. (And if you publish a second edition, you’ll need to seek permission again.)

If you’re under contract with a publisher

Just about every traditional publisher provides their authors with a permissions form to use for their project (be sure to ask if you haven’t received one!), but if you’re a self-publishing author, or you’re working with a new or inexperienced house, you may need to create your own.

To help you get started, I’ve created a sample permissions letter you can customize; it will be especially helpful if you’re contacting authors or individuals for permission. It will be less necessary if you’re contacting publishers, who often have their own form that you need to sign or complete.

To request permission from a publisher, visit their website and look for the Permissions or Rights department. Here are links to the New York publishers’ rights departments, with instructions on how to request permission.

Will you be charged?

It’s hard to say, but when I worked at a mid-size publisher, we advised authors to be prepared to pay $1,000–$3,000 for all necessary permissions fees if they were quoting regularly and at length. (Publishers don’t cover permissions fees for authors, except in special cases.) If you’re seeking permission for use that is nonprofit or educational in nature, the fees may be lower or waived.

What if you don’t get a response or the conditions are unreasonable?

That’s unfortunate, but there is little you can do. If you can’t wait to hear back, or if you can’t afford the fees, you should not use the work in your own. However, there is something known as a “good faith search” option. If you’ve gone above and beyond in your efforts to seek permission, but cannot determine the copyright holder, reach the copyright holder, or get a response from a copyright holder (and you have documented it), this will be weighed as part of the penalty for infringement. This is not protection, however, from being sued or being found guilty of infringement.

Sometimes, the best strategy is to avoid seeking permission in the first place. With a little editing or reworking, it may possible for you to abide by fair use guidelines; in such cases, you don’t have to seek permission. Ideas are not protected by copyright, but the expression of those ideas is protected. So, putting something in your own words or paraphrasing is usually okay, as long as it’s not too close to the way the original idea was expressed.

If you want to consult with someone on permissions

I recommend my colleague Kelly Figueroa-Ray, who has experience in permissions and proper use of citations. She has also been invaluable in her insight and feedback on the information offered in this post.

Sample Permissions Letter


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Posted in Business for Writers and tagged , , , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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74 Comments on "A Basic Guide to Getting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter"

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Diane Weber

Thank you for explaining this to us. I have been searching, and this is the clearest explanation I have found. I am certainly going to use your sample letter. I’m seeking permission to use a paragraph from a couple of old (1917-1926) newspapers (with credit, of course), and I think I can adapt your letter to my needs. (My middle grade novel is set during World War I.) I hope I get a positive response!

LaTanya Davis

Thank you so much! This is just what I’ve been looking for to get permissions for a memoir that I am self-publushing.

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[…] If you need to request permissions from an author or publisher, here are general guidelines, plus a sample letter you can customize.  […]

Alexis O'Neill

You’ve given us a really fabulous resource, Jane! Thanks for clarifying so much about the permissions process.

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[…] Requesting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter […]

RJ

Jane, this is fantastic information. Thank you!!

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[…] When you publish there are many details you need to track, especially if you self-publish. Roz Morris answers the question: should you use the free CreateSpace ISBN or your own ISBN? Sometimes you need to get permission to use lyrics, prose, or poetry from other artists in your work. Jane Friedman explains how to request permission and gives a sample letter. […]

kevin6475
Hi Jane, I have been reading some of your past blogs on this subject–including the comments and replies (your patience seems to know no bounds.) I have a writing blog, and with each post I take a still from a famous movie (ranging from “The Bells” to “Star Wars” to “Pulp fiction”) and add a “funny” tag line. The picture is not relevant to the blog but the tag line I create is. The first question I have to I need permission for the blog? Secondly, I eventual hope to take one group of blogs (Quick 5 point guide to… Read more »
kevin6475

Thank you Jane.

James

Hi Jane thank you for your article. I am currently writing a book so this helps a lot. I have a question however.

The source that I am requesting to use quotes from is non-fiction. If i do not get permissions, Is it possible to summarize the information in my own words instead of using direct quotations and then use a citation. This is sort of a loop hole instead of directly quoting the source.

It is based on the implication that direct quotes are more valuable than citing facts.

James

John

Hi Jane,
We are collecting stories about a certain subject, all from people who have had experiences ranging from humorous to frightening with this subject. We plan to publish the brief (300 words or less) stories without any names, i.e., as anonymous experiences.

Since we are not using names, do we need written permission to publish these stories?

Thank you.

mywordlikefire

Thank you for taking the time to help us.

Larry Bailey
Hello Miss Jane, As a middle school English teacher, I am currently working on a project with a 7th-grade student. We are doing a great deal of research in addition to our own “leg work” (interviews, phone calls, etc.). We want to know if we can use quotes from the internet from, say, comments made on a news show by the host. We also want to know if “reviews” or “comments” from writers would also be fair game to use. We have contacted at least one newspaper and one book author and requested use of information, and, after they discovered… Read more »
Kaden Moeller
I have a colossal question, one of utmost importance/personal quest. I am trying (mostly clumsily) to contact/convince an author/creator of a character to utilize his character. What would be the proper way to go about this? I am unsure about requesting use because I don’t really know if I should just offer money up front, or just ask how much? The character hasn’t seen use since 2001 and I do not see the author ever utilizing the character in the near future. How would I go about convincing him? Note, I am not very well off monetarily. Should I send… Read more »
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[…] I’ve written a separate post explaining the process for seeking permissions, with a sample request form. […]

Elizabeth McBride

Thank you for this good information, Jane. I am wondering if you have recommendations about the right time to get someone to review one’s manuscript who is a specialist in a field. Do you do that before submitting your work to an agent or editor, or only after someone has accepted it for publication? Do you have suggestions for how such a presentation should go? Thank you so much!

Ellen

I have a question about my dedication page. I would like to use a quote from either Dr. Seuss or J.K. Rowling and I’m not sure if I need to seek permission. It’s the only quote in my book and only on the dedication page and will be properly credited of course. Does this cover the fair use rule?

Viktoria Taylor-Richardson
Viktoria Taylor-Richardson

Hi Jane,

I am publishing a book which is a combination of research papers completed during graduate school at Liberty University. The research papers where based upon the a specific subject with the books being the primary supporting resource. Quotes from the same authors but different books where used throughout the manuscript. What is the best way to go about obtaining permission from the authors?

aron gersh

Hey Jane, I give myself permission to quote myself:”Thank you for your Awesomely helpful site. I send a grateful and gi-normous Hug”

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[…] Requesting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter […]

Sara Alfrey

I am currently in the process of writing a book that contains letters that others have written. There will be letters that I have asked of someone to write for the purpose of being in a book. Would I need any type of written permission to be able to publish this work?

teri

I am trying to get permission to use quotes in an art work from a woman who was previously in the public eye (at NASA) and no longer is. I tried to contact her via her company but it is apparently defunct. She also has/had a foundation but the website hasn’t been updated since 2004 leading me to believe this is also defunct. I have no way of knowing how to contact her. I don’t even know if I need permission but I’d rather have it and not need it.

Help!

Michael Kohler

Hi Jane. I noticed that other people had asked about getting permission from people who submit stories for a book they are going to publish (like Chicken Soup For The Soul). Is there a form that you have that I could use? I would be happy to pay for it. Even a script or service where they can sign a PDF digitally would be great. Thanks. Michael

John Fraser
Jane.. Thank you. I’ve read a few of your posts. I’ve enjoyed all of them. Questions / concerns regarding eBooks. ( I hope this isn’t too many questions for one post. ) I know permissions are required to link to a webpage. However, I’m planning on writing a “How To” eBook, to be sold online, for profit. Hypothetical: How to Photography. I write a section on Yousuf Karsh portrait techniques. My information is based on my interpretation ( in my words ) of what I’ve read on his website / various books and my own personal practices. At the end… Read more »
Carianna Morris

Hi Jane,
I am needing to use a quote by Marianne Williamson as part of the script for a commercial promoting education. What time of rights should I request? A one time right, exclusive, non exclusive… so confused. Thanks!

Carianna Morris

*what type of rights

Robin Cantrell

Hello, thanks for your information. I want to use the name of McGraw-Hill’s reading series for elementary schools to identify some original work that I want to sell on Teachers Pay Teachers. I sent a formal request to their rights dept. and they never responded. Many other sellers on TpT sell their own work but identify it by Wonders so others will know what it supplements. How to get them to respond. Thanks.

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[…] “Requesting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter” […]

Vincent Berg

Wonderful advice. Do you have a similar sample form for unpublished photographers or artists? I often encounter images I’d love to use for a book cover, but don’t know how to reach out, especially if they’ve never sold anything before. My requests seem to unnerve them. I’ve spoken to several authors who routinely ask artists on deviantart if they can use theirs, and receive it free of charge for a simple acknowledgment. Clearly I’m doing something wrong with my approach.

Laura Christensen
Dear Jane, This is a question about whether when to ask permission. Here’s a bit about my project: I am a visual artist building a book project with several authors. The book will be like an anthology of short writings, each paired with an image of my art. Several authors are writing new stories and poems in response to my art. I also want to include new artworks that I make in response to already published texts. I plan to approach possible publishers in February and March, but I want to complete at least one new artwork in response to… Read more »
chris

I am working on writing a book, I want to interview people about the subject I am writing about, do I need a letter for them to sign giving me permission to print their responses in my book, and if I quote their writings from one of their books, do I need permission for that as well

Holly

This is so so helpful. I did permissions recently for a client with 200 or more images in her book and it can be a huge challenge. My biggest suggestion is that authors should try to limit copyright content as much as possible because it can be very very costly. But if you have to do it, this is a great guide.

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[…] you use those song lyrics or novel excerpt in your own book? Jane Friedman discusses the basics of getting permissions for use, plus provides a sample permissions […]

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[…] Source: A Basic Guide to Getting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter […]

Trisa Hugo

Hi Jane
Thank you so much for your wonderful, informative articles. If I want to share the flowchart and info on this, I do not see an option to reblog this? Is it possible for me to post some of the info, especially the flowchart with credit to you and a link to your website?

Michael Lee

On my upcoming website, I would like to feature the complete inside front jacket blurb of several favorite books. The books would link to Amazon and other booksellers if the user wants to buy. Do I need permission to quote the jacket marketing material? Or must I laboriously write my own blurb version? I do see several commercial sites online (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) which include such blurbs, which I imagine are direct from the publisher. Do they all get a “blanket” permission to do that? Thanks.

Ann R

Hi, Jane,
Thank you for this and all of the great resources you’ve given us. I’m writing a book of cryptograms, using quotations from mystery novels. Each quote will be 1-2 sentences long, and the accurate sources and authors will be included. I don’t think I need permissions to use this material, but I’d like to have your opinion. Thanks.

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[…] https://janefriedman.com/sample-permission-letter/ How to seek permission to include in your work. […]

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[…] in your book? It's possible you may need to secure permission to do so. To help you figure this out Jane Friedman and GSF's Kelly Figueroa-Ray developed a great flowchart to help you evaluate what you might need […]

Kristina Mendoza

This is exactly what I’m looking for, for quite a few days now. Thank you so much for sharing it to us! This information is really handy in the future.

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