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University of York Library
Library Subject Guides

Copyright: a Practical Guide

Gaining permission

Do I need permission?

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

  • Does the material come with a licence which grants me permission to go ahead? (such as Creative Commons, or the publisher's own terms and conditions).

  • If not: is my intended use defensible under UK copyright law?

  • If not: can I easily contact the rights-holder to ask for permission?

  • If I don't ask for / don't get permission, what's the risk in going ahead anyway?

Deciding whether to reproduce a standalone image (such as a photo or illustration) in teaching material or other scholarly output raises specific questions: refer to the Images tab for more information.


If 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.


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.

Vintage style line drawing of a hand writing with a pen

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 in order to illustrate your point (which may take the form of agreement or disagreement with the original author!).  It's arguably "unfair" to rely on the Quotation defence when reproducing material which could have market value in its own right, such as an epigram or artistic work. 

When you are writing for publication, your publisher may set a word limit for quotes, unless you have the rights-holder's permission.  They may also ask you to obtain full clearance to reproduce any third party images in your work.  There's no international consensus on what counts as "fair dealing",  hence your publisher is taking a cautious approach.

Further help

Support from JISC and the Higher Education Academy for creators of Open Educational Resources includes the Web2Rights Risk Management Calculator: input information about the type of material you wish to re-use, and the context/target audience, in order to receive an assessment of the likely risk of copyright infringement.

Copyright offers practical advice on 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.


Music, films and broadcasts

For guidance about showing films or playing music in the classroom (physical or virtual), see the Teaching tab.


Be aware that the University of York does not currently hold any institution-wide licences for screening films or playing music for leisure or business activities. The relevant licensing agencies offer a range of single-use or site-specific payment options.

Clip art illustration of a reel to reel film projector


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

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

When you incorporate recorded music into your own creative output (for an audience beyond the classroom), you may need to purchase a Limited Manufacture Licence from the Performing Rights Society, or search online for a bespoke supplier of royalty-free tracks.

Creating a digital collection

If you have access to a collection of material in a physical format which you would like to digitise for teaching or research purposes, you should try to establish copyright status before you start:

  • Is the material protected by copyright?

  • If so,  is it possible to obtain permission from the rights-holder, and agree terms?  (e.g. any restrictions on the audience or lifespan for the digital version)

  • If you can't get permission, are you willing to accept liability for any subsequent claim for breach of copyright?

  • Should you commit publicly to withdrawing any material which is found to breach copyright?  (see this example of a 'take-down notice' from White Rose Research Online).

The University of York's Borthwick Institute provides a bespoke digitisation service, and will be happy to talk through your requirements.  

If the collection you intend to digitise is likely to be of interest to others, it may be a suitable candidate for York Digital Library.   Be aware that "adherence to copyright law and licences is the responsibility of the depositor"  (York Digital Library Policy #6.1).

University of York teaching staff who wish to digitise published texts for use as course reading should take advantage of the Digitisation Service provided by the Library's Reading List team.


Launched in 2017 by a team of academics in partnership with UK and EU research bodies,  the Copyright Cortex is a collection of "information and expert commentary on how copyright law affects the creation and management of digital cultural heritage", targeted at librarians and archivists, museum workers and academics in the field of digital humanities.  Professor Ronan Deazley from Queens University Belfast has contributed Copyright and Digital Cultural Heritage (2017), a free online textbook for "librarians, archivists and museum curators". 

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?)
  • Will your copy be distributed under the terms of an open licence which permits further distribution and/or reuse with or without restrictions (e.g. Creative Commons)

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.

Leeds University Library's guide to Clearing Copyright provides some template letters for typical scenarios, such as requesting permission to reproduce copyright material in a thesis, teaching resource or journal article. 

Contacting the rights-holder

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

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.

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).

Photo of a fluffy brown and yellow mallard duckling swimming on the university lake, it is swimming next to a stick

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).