Copyright Basics

Do not leave permissions until the last minute. It usually takes weeks and sometimes months to identify rights holders, negotiate fees and other terms, and obtain countersigned agreements. Use the permissions log to track requests and responses. Press staff will review this log and copies of the permissions documentation before putting your manuscript into production. The more thorough your log, the less likely we will ask for anything more from you.

When You Need to Ask for Permission

Permission is required for the use of two types of copyrighted materials: your own previously published work (when you have granted publication rights to a publisher, even if the copyright appears in your name) and other authors’ copyrighted materials that do not come under the principle of fair use or that are not in the public domain. If your use qualifies as fair use or if the material is in the public domain, you do not need to seek permission. We advise determining whether your use of copyrighted material is fair or whether the material is in the public domain before seeking permission.

Fair Use

The principle of fair use allows certain uses of copyrighted material without requiring the user to get the permission of the copyright holder. Quoting or reproducing small amounts of an author’s or artist’s work in order to review or criticize it or to illustrate the user’s own argument are examples of fair use.

However, in many cases determining exactly what is covered by fair use depends on specific circumstances. In law, a “rule of reason” determines whether a particular use is fair or not.

Important factors in determining whether a particular use is fair include the following:

  • The nature of the use of the copyrighted material
  • The nature of the copyrighted work from which the material is taken
  • The proportion of the copyrighted work being reproduced in the new work
  • The effect of the use on the commercial value of the work being quoted or reproduced

The use is probably fair if:

  • The unlicensed use transforms the copyrighted material
  • The reproduced part of the copyrighted work is used in an educational setting and no one earns money from its use
  • The copyrighted material is used in an appropriate way—that is, the original meaning is not distorted, the source is cited, and the material is important to the user’s argument
  • Only a small portion of the copyrighted work (relative to its length or size—a single sentence from a book or essay, a small detail of a painting, a screenshot or film still) is reproduced
  • The use is reasonable according to the standards of a particular field

Public Domain

In the United States, copyright exists for a term set by law. After that term expires, everyone may freely use the material—it has entered the public domain.

However, the law changed in important ways in the twentieth century, so figuring out what is in the public domain and what remains protected by copyright can be confusing. We advise checking a public domain guide such as Cornell’s to determine whether your material is in the public domain.

For more recent works, see the AUPresses’s Permissions FAQ.

Some documents are in the public domain from the start, such as those created by the U.S. federal government.

When You Must Get Permission

In general, you need to obtain written permission for the following items:

  • Illustrations such as photographs, tables, charts, maps, and graphs that were produced by someone else and are not in the public domain. You may need permission from both the owner of the physical object (e.g., a museum, archive, or individual) and the creator (e.g., the artist, photographer, or cartographer). For photographs, if private individuals are pictured in private settings, you may need permission from them also.
  • Quotations from published materials that exceed fair use and are not in the public domain. Stanzas of poetry, letters, song lyrics, diary entries, and other items that constitute complete entities in and of themselves usually require permission if they are not being used for purposes of review or criticism. For letters, the writer rather than the recipient holds the copyright, but permission is also needed from the recipient before the letter can be published.
  • Quotations from unpublished documents not your own (e.g., unpublished letters, speeches, or papers) that exceed fair use and are not in the public domain. You may need to get permission from both the archive in which the documents are held and the writer (and recipient, in the case of letters). Fair use is defined more narrowly in the case of unpublished documents.
  • Quotations from interviews that include the interviewee’s name, exceed fair use, or are not in the public domain. Copyright is jointly held by interviewer and interviewee. If you conducted the interview, you still need written permission from the interviewee, and that documentation must include permission to publish.
  • Quotations from certain government documents and materials that exceed fair use or are not in the public domain. Although U.S. federal government documents cannot be copyrighted, government agencies may hold copyrighted materials (e.g., items donated to a government archive). The archive or other agency should be able to tell you if you need permission to use materials in their collections. If not, this information often can be found in the agencies’ wording about restrictions on photocopying or scanning. Documents created by other levels of government may be copyrighted.
  • Your own previously published materials, unless you retained the right to reproduce the material or those rights were reverted to you. Contracts with academic journals often include a clause specifically granting authors permission to republish content in their own single-author books, requiring only acknowledgment of the prior publication. Some journals grant permission to reprint in this specific way on their websites. Provide a copy of the contract or the website statement to the press to document this grant of permission.
  • Song lyrics. Songs often have considerable commercial value and so fair use is defined very narrowly. We strongly encourage you to paraphrase lyrics whenever possible.

Preparing Permission Requests

Please use the sample letter as the basis for your requests. When you prepare your permission requests, be sure to ask for:

  • Nonexclusive world rights
  • All editions (including cloth, paper, and e-book)
  • The life of the book (try to avoid accepting limits on time or the number of books printed; if that is not possible, seek the broadest permission possible as to print runs and time allowance)

Also include in the letter:

  • The working title of your manuscript
  • The statement that the publisher is Michigan State University Press, a nonprofit scholarly publisher (many organizations set lower fees or waive them entirely for nonprofits)
  • Exactly what you are requesting permission to reprint, including page number, archival locator information, negative number, and/or description
  • A photocopy or digital photograph of the text or image, if practical

Have all letters of permission sent directly to you. Record the details in the permissions log, put the required attribution information in any captions, and, for illustrations, number each and key each grant of permission to those figure number(s). Keep these forms on file.

Include copies of all the permissions forms and the completed permissions log with your final manuscript. We need to have complete, fully signed copies of the permissions forms—including front and back sides and lists of terms and conditions that may be attached or provided in correspondence—so we can follow the conditions of use (e.g., the wording of credit lines, cropping instructions). We also need to have the addresses for those grantors who require complementary copies of your book in exchange for permissions.