We all know what constitutes copyright infringement—using someone else’s work without permission in a way that does not include fair use. You respect copyrights, and you want to comply with the law. But how do you use someone else’s work legally?
When you might need to ask permission
If you’re a blogger, you might want to use someone’s photography to accent your post. If you’re a musician, you might want to sample a few measures from a classical recording and use it in your hip-hop track. A filmmaker might want to use a specific song over the end credits; a documentarian might want to show historical documents or photographs during the film.
There are any number of reasons you’d need permission from someone to use material you didn’t create. Unless you’re sure your use is fair use (which might be the case if you photocopied an article for discussion in the classroom, for example, or you’re a news reporter using a photograph for a story), you could be opening yourself up to a lawsuit.
You know you need to get permission from the copyright owner to use the work—but what does that entail? How do you ask for permission?
Who to contact for permission
The person in charge of giving permission to use copyrighted material may or may not be the initial creator of the art; while by default the author automatically owns the copyright, there may be a different permissions department as a part of a greater organization, which handles all permissions on behalf of that author—or the author may not still be the legal owner of his work at all.
Let’s take a look at the various ways we might ask for permission to use somebody’s copyrighted material for your own use.
WebsiteOne of the first places to check, if you know who’s responsible for the material, is that person or group’s website.
For instance, if you’d like to use material by an independent up-and-coming band, your best bet would be to contact them directly and propose a copyright license agreement via an email to the Contact Us address.
Tell them a little bit about your project—any self-respecting musician is going to want to know how you intend to use their material. And make sure to mention how giving you permission to use their song will give them exposure too!
If you’re having trouble connecting a particular work to a logical website, take a look at the US Copyright Office’s database.
When an artist officially registers a copyright, he or she has the option of providing public contact information so that someone in your situation can request permission to use the work. (Note that in order to search a record, you need to have basic information about the work: the title, the author, or ideally the copyright registration number itself.)
Performing Rights Organization
Most commercial artists belong to one of the top three performing rights organizations: BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC. Artists can only belong to one of these; to determine which organization your artist in question belongs to, below are links to the Search section of each organization:
What if you can’t find the copyright owner?
There are many cases where you might find a photograph or image online in a way not connected to the copyright owner. Maybe someone else posted the material without permission, so your source is not a source that can help you. Or perhaps you heard a song, but you’re not able to determine the artist in order to ask permission.
Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: Not being able to locate the copyright owner is not an excuse for copyright permission. If you can’t find the owner to ask for permission to use copyrighted material, then you can’t legally use the material.
You might argue that if you can’t find the owner, the chances that he or she will suddenly come out of the woodwork to claim copyright infringement are slim. If you’d like to gamble with your intellectual property and chance a lawsuit, that’s entirely your business—but a safer bet would be to abandon using the work entirely and either find something in the public domain to use or search for an acceptable work that carries a Creative Commons license.