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MFA Creative Writing

This guide is intended to support MFA Creative Writing students as they conduct research.

Seeking Permission

Tracking down the copyright owner can be a challenge in itself.  In most cases it’s not the author but actually the publisher that owns the copyright.  When authors get ready to publish an article or book, more than likely they have transferred copyright over to the publisher. The Copyright Advisory Office at Columbia University has complied an extensive list of resources to assist in locating copyright owners along with sample permission letters.

In order to secure permission from the copyright owner you need to write a letter that includes:

  • a complete description of the material that you want to use including the citation, page numbers, and how much you want to use
  • explain how you want to use the material and  how important or relevant it is to include this information as part of your research
  • include how many times or how often the material will be used, the form of distribution, and whether the material will be sold
  • include a signature line for the copyright holder to sign, signifying that permission has been granted
  • be direct and concise
  • send out early with regular reminders

If the copyright holder can't be located or is unresponsive (or if you are unwilling to pay a license fee), be prepared to use a limited amount that qualifies for fair use, or use alternative material.

Remember that you don’t need to request permission if:

  • your use is within Fair Use and you have made that determination
  • the work is not protected by copyright
  • your use is within the terms of a license agreement, such as a Creative Commons license

Tips for Obtaining Permissions

Obtaining copyright permissions and high resolution images from libraries and museums can present a unique set of challenges. Each situation/entity is different and you may have a very positive experience, but keep the following tips in mind to help ensure smooth sailing:

  • Start early! You may run into less-than-responsive public functionaries and bureaucratic procedures that draw out the copyright permissions process. U.S. publishers are not typically flexible with their deadlines, so the fact that email replies take weeks or seven forms have to be submitted for each image will not win you much sympathy.

  • Get to know someone on the inside. Next time you find yourself in a dusty archive somewhere, make friends with the office in charge of copyright and reproduction. Having a connection with someone who can speed your request along will save weeks, if not months, of your life.

  • Request everything your publisher needs up front. Is your book coming out electronically as well?  Some entities may consider that to be a separate edition and therefore require a separate permissions request. Does your publisher need 600 dpi or will 300 dpi do the trick? Going back to get a higher resolution may cost you weeks, so it's worth confirming their needs before submitting any requests. 

  • Review all the paperwork first. Think a high resolution image is automatically included in your copyright permission request?  Double-check! You may need to submit separate request forms for the copyright permissions and the image itself, and those processes may have separate fees attached. You may have to fax (or even snail-mail) these forms, as online submission options are by no means guaranteed.

  • Clearly identify any documents or payments submitted in support of the request. Once you have that assigned request number, put it on everything you submit. Have to pay the permissions fee with a wire transfer? Your name and request number should feature prominently on that form, or they may not realize you've paid them.

  • Consider potential scheduling challenges. Consider many university staff take late summer vacations in August before fall semester starts. We joke that most of Europe goes on vacation in August, but sometimes, it really does seem like most of Europe goes on vacation in August.  If you have a September 1 deadline for your course launch, perhaps consider August 1 to be your deadline for copyright permissions from the National Library of Spain.

  • Ask for help. Is this your first rodeo? Chances are a colleague in your field may have navigated the wilds of copyright permissions before and can provide insider knowledge. 

Identifying and Locating Copyright Owners

  • U.S. Copyright Office - Search Copyright Records

These sites outline tools and techniques for identifying and contacting copyright owners.

Orphan Works

"Orphan works" is a term used to describe works still under copyright for which the copyright owner cannot be identified, located, or contacted in order to ask for permission to use the work. The decision to use an orphan work without permission is a risk.  The sites below can help you assess that risk.

With permission: Terry Owen and Andrew Horbal, University of Maryland Libraries and Cindy Kristhof, Kent State University Library