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Clearing copyright

WritersServices Self-publishing

How to Clear Copyright


What is the point of copyright?

Copyright provides a framework for trading in intellectual property. In practice it protects the author’s position and ensures that the publisher is able to take on the risk of publication in the knowledge that the publisher’s rights are protected. In effect authors, (the originators of intellectual property) sub-license their rights through their book contracts to different parties in individual territories and in specific forms.  (See Inside Publishing, on Subsidiary Rights.)

This contractual provision safeguards the publisher’s position. It ensures publishers will sell the books they produce actively and also guard against any copyright infringement. In practice exclusive sub-licensing is the norm, so there should always be only one organisation, usually a publisher with text permissions, which has the right to grant permission.

Where pictures and photographs are concerned, the right to reproduce them may remain with the artist or photographer, but it is more usual for it to be handled through a picture agency.

What is the permission for?

If you want to clear the use of copyright and get permission to use an extract or a picture in your book, the first thing to be clear about is exactly what you want. There is no point approaching the copyright holder without the specific information about the work you want to use.

Next, you will need to know precisely how you propose to use it. Permissions grantors will need to know the title and author of the work for which the passage or picture is intended. They will want to know the format (hardback or paperback) and the intended print-run. If your book is to be made available using Print on Demand you will have to make a guess about the first year’s printing.

The reason they want this information is that they might grant the use inside the text but withhold approval if you plan to put a quote on the cover or associate their copy with something of which they do not approve. Some kinds of use will also cost more.

Finding the rights-holder

Tracking down the rights-holder can prove difficult. If you are talking about an extract from a book, the best place to start is by writing to the publisher with the above information. Address your letter to the Rights Department, which generally handles permissions. The address of the publisher should be at the front of any book or journal and inside every newspaper.

Publishers usually handle the right to grant permission to use material (see Inside Publishing, on Subsidiary Rights) and tend to have an established procedure for dealing with permissions. In some cases the author’s agent, or even the author directly, will control these rights, particularly if the title is now out of print and the rights have reverted to the author. If this is the case, the publisher should supply contact information.

The Copyright Clearance Centre Inc, an American not-for-profit organisation which manages rights relating to 1.75 million works, is also useful if you are trying to clear permissions or track down rights-holders.


The procedure for clearing picture permissions is not that different, but you may well find that the picture is owned by photo or picture libraries which make their money out of granting permissions. Picture fees can be extremely expensive, so it is well worth researching this thoroughly at an early stage, especially if you want to include a lot of pictures in your book. You may want to consider substituting one picture for another or cutting down on the number of pictures you are planning to us, if you find that they will cost too much.

Designers and other professionals use catalogues containing a vast range of images and these are still better than the web for research. A great many images are now available online however and, unless you have access to the catalogues, this may be an easier way to find what you are looking for. Before proceeding further you need to know exactly which image you want, ideally with a reference number and the name of the owner of the copyright. You then contact the copyright owner to obtain a ‘picture acquisition form’ which is normally faxed or emailed to you to complete, but this can increasingly be done online.

When you complete the form you will normally be able to see what the picture will cost, but there is room for negotiation if the use is for charitable purposes. The owner will attach a set of conditions and there is often a clause imposing a ‘fine’ for every breach, such as omitting the details provided by the owner.

In return, the copyright owner will generally be able to supply the artwork in the format you require, for which they make a reasonable charge. Allow a month for museums to process your application but picture agencies can often sort everything out in a few days.  Picture libraries

Which territories?

The other thing you have to consider before writing to ask for permission is which territories you are seeking permissions for. This depends on where you are intending your book to be published and sold. If you are intending it to be published worldwide in the English language, then you will need to ask for ‘world English language’ rights (for clarification see Inside Publishing on the English Language Publishing Market).

Translated editions

If you think your book might be translated, then you are looking for translation rights too, so you should say ‘in all languages’. But the right to grant permissions is usually linked in to what are called ‘volume rights’. This means, for instance, that, if there is a German publisher for the book, they will have volume rights in the German language. You will have to find out who it is and contact them directly to clear the permission for the German edition too. Bear in mind that ‘in all languages’ will cost more, so you should only do this if it’s necessary.

Permission fees

Since permissions can be expensive and time-consuming to clear, it is worth thinking this through carefully in the first place and asking for exactly what you want. It is usual to charge half the fee for critical or scholarly works with low print runs so, if your work falls into one of these areas, you should make this clear. The publisher will come back to you quoting a fee.

The Publishers Association of the UK has a useful set of pages on this:

    Minimum fees

    Permission to use passages of less than around 250 words is usually granted free, although publishers may make a minimum charge of between £30 and £50 to offset the cost of processing small permissions.

    Final thoughts

    ·If you have difficulty tracking down the rights-holder and do not in the end manage to do so, it may be important later to be able to prove that you did try, so you should keep copies of all correspondence.

    ·Make sure that any acknowledgements required by the copyright owners are added to your prelim pages.

    ·Don’t underestimate how long it takes to clear permissions. You will often get a slow answer and may then be referred on to someone else, so allow plenty of time to get everything sorted out.

    ·Since the cost of permissions can be substantial, it is worth asking yourself at an early stage if you really need to include the material.

    Copyright law Getting Copyright permission Model release Briefing