Permissions & Copyright: The Reasons Why They're Important

by Beth McAuley

Published at 2010-07-26

September 2015

We are reposting this blog from 2010 because the issue of copyright is still relevant, and the research challenges we faced with our project that year is one that we have encountered several times since. At that time, we were clearing photo permissions for Blood, Sweat and Tears by David Cleighton-Thomas (Penguin 2011).

Searching for the Photographers

TEC permissions editors just spent several weeks trying to identify photographers of several 40-year-old photographs, several of which were taken at Woodstock in the summer of 1969. These were photos our client wanted to publish in a forthcoming book, including using one on the cover. We had the images, we knew the names of the people in the photos, we knew when they were taken and where, but we had no other information.

We were on a tight timeline, so we devoted our research to web sources. We visited online newspaper archives, libraries, and photo agencies. We contacted photographers across Canada and the United States looking for clues. We poked into every electronic corner we could find.
We were lucky enough to track down several of the photographers, but there was one we could not identify. It was a shot of the author that was to be the cover of the book. But our searches just kept coming up empty. In the end, our client decided not to use that particular photograph and chose one that had been cleared. And that was the right decision.
Clearing Copyright Permissions
According to Canadian copyright law, it is best not to publish a photograph without having the permission of the person who took it. Unless, of course, the photograph is in the public domain. In this case, it was not.
We know there is an ongoing debate about having easy access to intellectual and creative materials and the right to reproduce these without permission and without having to pay for that use. (As an example, see the article "Copyright Holders 'Greedy' Say Woodlief, Curtis" reprinted from The New York Times in Quill & Quire.) But the bottom line is that if someone else created that information — whether it be a short story, a graph, a lyric, a poem, a quote, a logo, or a photograph — you need that person’s or that organization’s written permission to use it.
When we contact copyright holders on behalf of our clients, we send the appropriate letter and often receive a quick response, and frequently it allows the client to use the material. If we don’t hear back within a few weeks, we follow up until we receive clearance. We negotiate fees (if there is one), we secure the signed permission letter or contract, and record the credit line the copyright holder wishes our client to use.
TEC permissions editors have the experience and the contacts for carrying out this legwork. It takes time, and it takes research. Sometimes it is a straightforward process and at others it is hard to find what we need. But no matter what, it’s worth it. Clearing copyright permissions protects our clients and respects the intellectual and artistic rights of the creators. And that’s what copyright law is meant to do.