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Copyright : a practical guide

Do I need permission?

When you wish to re-use someone else's work, you may find it helpful to ask yourself these questions:

  • Was the material released with a licence for re-use? (such as Creative Commons, or the publisher's own terms and conditions).

  • If not: is there a legal exception which permits use in my circumstances?

  • contact the rights-holder to ask for permission?

When you are writing for publication, refer to your target publisher's 'guidance for authors' for advice about when and how they expect you to go about clearing permission for any third party material you intend to incorporate into your work.  For example, Oxford University Press provides detailed instructions

Making a request

When you ask for a rights-holder's permission to re-use their work, be prepared to negotiate a fee, and/or accept their terms and conditions.

Reaching an agreement may depend on your intended use:

  • Do you need to copy the whole work, or an extract?
  • What's the size of the potential audience for your copy?
  • How long will your copy remain in circulation?
  • Will anyone make any money from your copy? (e.g. a web host platform running adverts, or an article behind a publisher's paywall?)

Scholarly publishers and academic rights-holders often respond positively to requests to reproduce their material in a context which raises the creator's profile, such as teaching materials or a critical review.

Contacting the rights-holder

Many publishers offer a dedicated service to process requests for permission to reproduce their material.  Look for a form or email address on their website.

Watch (Writers, Artists and Their Copyright Holders) is "a database of copyright contacts for writers, artists and prominent figures in other creative fields", maintained by the University of Reading and the University of Texas at Austin.

The partner service Fob (Firms Out of Business) provides information about publishing concerns and literacy agencies no longer operational.

Orphan works

In the UK, copyright in most media formats expires 70 years after the death of the creator.  If the work is unattributed, or the creator cannot be traced, the material becomes an orphan work: copyright status unknown.

In response to a 2012 EU Directive, the UK's Intellectual Property Office has launched an online application form to obtain a licence to re-use an orphan work (for a fee, which is held in trust by the IPO in case the rights-holder appears).

Image credit:
Duck of the Day


Melissa Terras, Director of UCL's Centre for Digital Humanities, has blogged about her experience of following the IPO's instructions to obtain an orphan work licence (October 2014). 


Quoting from a published work (text, images or AV) does not infringe copyright, providing your use is "fair dealing" and you acknowledge the original author or creator.

In UK law, there is no limit to the length of your quote, although you must be able to justify why you needed to reproduce the amount that you chose. Any use which potentially undermines the market for the original material is arguably 'unfair', although this does not preclude you from critical commentary on the original.

When you are writing for publication, your publisher may set a limit on the extent of your quotes, beyond which you are required to seek the rights-holder's permission.  Other countries' copyright protection for quotes can be more restrictive than the UK's, hence your publisher is taking a cautious approach.

Music, films and broadcasts

For advice about clearing copyright to use AV in a curricular context, see the Teaching tab.

The University of Dundee holds licences which cover, for example, musical performances/recorded music at various sites.  These authorise the public use of CDs, tapes, records etc.  Further information on PPL and PRS can be found here 

Broadcasters' websites are likely to offer their own guidelines, for example Can I use BBC material? 

‚ÄčThe BBC Film Network has archived a 2012 guide for aspiring film makers to clear permissions before showing their work in public (NB The Film Network is no longer connected to the BBC - free registration is necessary to gain access to newer support materials).

Briefings from the UK Intellectual Property Office outline the permissions necessary for the performance or broadcast of other people's music

Further help

Copyright is a new website (2015) targetted at UK creative industries: an output from the RCUK-funded CREATe project based at the University of Glasgow.  Provides advice about Getting Permission to use other people's work.

The Copyright Hub is a non-profit company funded by the creative industries and UK Government via the Technology Strategy Board.  Guides to Gaining Permission to use music, images, text, video and multimedia are under development.

The Society of Authors provides a Guide to Copyright and Permissions (2015), with information about how to trace rights-holders, how to describe your intended use, and what to expect in the way of fees and conditions.