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How to Get Permissions


by Brandon Tissler

Brandon Trissler is a copywriter for a Chicago advertising agency. He is coeditor of Graduation Day: The Best of America's Commencement Speeches.

Obtaining permission to reprint or reproduce material can be tricky. Sometimes, it's difficult to know when you have to get permission, and who you have to ask. I had to tackle permissions head-on when I put together Graduation Day: The Best of America's Commencement Speeches (William Morrow & Company; 1998), my collection of speeches from celebrities, politicians, and other public officials. Since the book was composed entirely of material generated by others, I had to make sure I obtained permission for every word in the book.

First, if you reprint or reproduce intellectual work (books, song lyrics, music, scripts, etc.), you'll most likely have to get permission to do so. This involves contacting the person who owns the rights to the work and getting their permission in writing. The rights holder can then charge a fee, refuse permission, or grant permission at no charge.

Not surprisingly, there are exceptions. Works in the public domain may be used without permission and free of charge. Generally speaking, in the United States, anything published or produced more than 75 years ago is considered to be in the public domain. Always double-check, however, since copyrights can be renewed on older works or maintained by estates and descendants. If quoting from works published outside the United States, you'll need to investigate what the particular country's permissions laws are. Furthermore, translations of works can be copyrighted, even though the original works are in the public domain in the original language.

Also, anything produced by a public official in the United States is considered to be in the public domain while that person is in office. In other words, anything Bill Clinton has said, written, or communicated since he became President is up for grabs. I used a lot of elected officials in Graduation Day because they often spoke at graduations and the speeches didn't cost me a dime.

Another loophole is fair use. Fair use implies that you are using the work of the person in a non-commercial fashion for analysis, comparison, or some other reason. For instance, a book reviewer quoting a couple of lines from a novel in their review can do so because the quote is small and being used to analyze the book. On the other hand, reprinting an entire graduation speech would not have been considered fair use. Most of the time, if you quote a couple of sentences from a work, you can do so without permission. But be careful: Fair use is a nebulous area. When in doubt, always double-check. Also, if you quote even a line from any published music, you'll probably need permission. See the Chicago Manual of Style for more on public domain and fair use.

Asking for permission

Let's say you have some material you'd like to reprint and you would like to contact the rights holder for permission. Your best bet is to start with the company that produced the work, such as a publisher. Call and ask to speak to the permissions or rights department. If the company doesn't have this kind of department, just explain what you're trying to get permission for. Chances are, you'll have to send a request in writing, but calling ahead can help you find out where to send your query. Also, sometimes the permissions person may be able to tell you on the phone if they have permission to the work or who to talk to if they don't.

What if the work is out of print? That's a little trickier. If the publisher or periodical is still around, contact them as you would normally. If the organization that produced the work is no longer in existence, look for works by the author/artist that are still in print and contact the permissions departments of those companies.

In some cases, you'll have to contact the actual author or artist. I had to do this quite a bit since the people who delivered the unpublished graduation speeches I used held the rights to them. Here you'll either deal with that person or their agent/representative. Just approach them the way you would a publisher or other company. If you're trying to locate the agent or representative for a particular person, try contacting their publisher, movie company, record label, etc., for the name of their representative. If that fails, check your local bookstore - there are books that have public relations contacts for celebrities and other public persons.

When writing your permissions letter, you need to address two key elements. First, be as specific as possible regarding the material you would like to reproduce and how you intend to use it. Then, after your letter, have an agreement that the rights holder can sign, giving you permission to use the work. You may want to have a lawyer who specializes in copyright law look over your agreement. Agents and other representatives may send their own agreement in lieu of yours, especially if they want money. For some examples of letters and agreements, again check out the Chicago Manual of Style.

To get permissions cleared for the 30-odd speeches used in Graduation Day, it took a couple of months and quite a bit of money. My situation was a little extreme, but even if you are only getting one or two permissions, be prepared to wait and spend some cash. You might only wait a couple of weeks and spend $20, or you could wait two months and pay $200. Or, in the worst case, you won't get permission at all. Whatever you do, always get permission before reproducing something unless you're sure it's public, because the legal headaches from illegally using someone else's work make the permissions process look like a cakewalk.