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Copyright and Fair Use

A guide for creating and using copyrighted materials in education.

Getting Permission - Overview

Do you need to seek permission?

  • Is the work you want to use in the public domain?
  • Is the work you want to use published in an open source journal?
  • Does the work have a Creative Commons License attribution?
  • Does your use of the work fall within Fair Use guidelines?

If you answered YES to any of the questions above, good news!  You do not need to seek permission to use the work.  However, it is still a good idea to provide a citation to the original work, and in some cases, this is required (e.g. Creative Commons works).

IF YOU DO NEED TO SEEK PERMISSION, here are the basic steps you would take:

  1. Determine who holds the copyright to the work
  2. Get permission or license your use of the work
    • Contact the rights holder directly to request permission, in writing, to use the work.  See the Requesting Permission guidelines at Columbia University's Copyright Advisory Center OR
    • Get clearance through the Copyright Clearance Center, or other collective licensing agency
  3. Keep track of your records

NOTE: Seeking clearance can be a lengthy process that can take anywhere from 2 days to several months.  Keep this in mind as you plan your courses.  In most cases, it is best to NOT use the work while you are waiting for permissions from the rights holder.

Determining Copyright Ownership

Copyright owners can be identified in a number of ways:

  • Look for the copyright notice on the work itself.  It should include the original copyright holder, which will give you a starting place for inquiry.
  • See if the work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.  This provides records for works published after 1978, but you may still need to verify if the owner is still the same.
  • See if the work is listed at the Copyright Clearance Center, a collective licensing agency.  The CCC website will also let you know how much it would cost to license the work for a specified amount of time and number of students.
  • Larger publishers may also have permission departments for handing copyright inquiries.  Check publisher websites for contact information.

The Columbia University Libraries Copyright Advisory Office has a extensive list of Collective Licensing Agencies for print and online works, music, drama, visual arts, motion pictures, and religious works.  Use the list to identify a likely agency for your work and start your search there.


Crews, K.D.  (2006).  Copyright law for librarians and educators: Creative strategies and practical solutions. Chicago: American Library Association.