Navigating the World of Permissions Editing

by Nadine Bachan

Published at 2011-06-10

Plagiarism has become rampant in this age of instantly accessible information. There have been countless cases of stolen words, images and art, from student essays to photographs to musical compositions and lyrics.

Just a few days ago, one of our clients found a website had included a large chunk of writing from one of her monthly newsletters on its homepage without her knowledge or consent. She asked us for advice, and we suggested she immediately contact the webmaster with proof that the material was hers. When she did, the webmaster apologized for the oversight. To correct the situation, he added a credit line with her name and the URL of her newsletter.
Although our client’s brush with copyright infringement ended without much incident, the general population may not be aware of how far-reaching and serious copyright law truly is. That ignorance has landed a lot of people in legal trouble.
The job of the permissions editor—and of several other members of an editorial team—is to ensure that this does not happen.
The Permissions Journey
Together with an editorial team that includes the authors, developmental editors, deputy editors, supervising editors, and permissions managers, the permissions editor’s task is to ensure that all copyright holders are alerted to the use of their work in the forthcoming textbook and are asked to grant permission to do so. This involves a lot of communication, negotiation, and the signing of legal documents, which clearly state all terms of use and consent.
I’ve worked on clearing permissions for several educational textbooks over the past few years.  The process always brings new challenges and puts me in contact with many different (and quite interesting) people.
There are many types of copyright holders that I approach: writers, photographers, publishers, literary agents, newspapers, journals, stock photo agencies, the government, and third-party companies. Getting in touch with these people and organizations varies in both method and response time. Patience and persistence are equally important virtues in this field.
Circumstances do arise when a copyright holder does not grant permission. When this happens, the editors and authors work together on revising the book to remove the material. This usually involves finding a replacement, which means tracking down the copyright holder of the new material.
To clear all of the copyrighted material for one textbook can take months of research, correspondence, and collaboration. It is an in-depth and complex process that can be rather procedural in some cases and can require following a long paper trail in others.
Every time I receive a new project, I’m always eager to see who I’ll get to contact (maybe one of my favourite authors someday?) and where the next hunt for a permissions clearance will take me.