Copyright and Permissions

You’ve written your piece and carefully cited the source of all material that is not your own. Excellent. You have avoided plagiarism. I’m so proud that I could weep. Seriously, I’ll buy you a celebratory cookie.

Citing is not permission

Next, you need to write to the copyright holders and ask permission to use their copyrighted material.

If an author doesn’t obtain permission of the copyright holder then they, the author, will have breached the copyright and will be liable for (potentially large) damages. The author will have stolen the copyright holder’s intellectual property.

– Janet MacMillan, editor and recovering lawyer (with permission, you betch’a)

What needs permission?

  • Any graphic, photo, set of points, chart, song lyric, etc.
  • Any quote that is a significant part of the original.
  • Maybe more.

The criteria set out in copyright law is necessarily vague. It centres around the idea of protecting the value of the creator’s original work. Quote 200 words of this post and you’d be breaking copyright even though the word count seems trivial.

“Unfair!” you cry. Until the tables are turned. You’ll be glad when you’re on the receiving end of a request to use your work. Two hundred words is most of this post.

*Even your own work could need permission. You might not be the copyright holder if the work was for hire (e.g., your employer or a client who bought all rights). Your coauthors or the publication may hold some of the copyright.

When in doubt, ask permission. At worst, you’ll create a buzz about your upcoming work. At best, you’ll network – and get permission.

Who needs to get permission?

You do.

There are a few exceptions, but unless you are writing a news piece critiquing the material, it is likely that your writing does not qualify. Even if you are writing a thesis that only your advisers will read, you need permission to include other’s work.

Publishers tend to make permissions the responsibility of the author. Authors are usually required to pay the cost of permissions. Yes, sometimes you (the author) will have to pay for the right to include the valuable works of others. Again, you’ll be glad when you’re on the receiving end.

*There are contractors who specialize in this work. Just like paying someone to compile your index or vet your bibliographic entries, farming out this task can relieve a lot of stress. Find a permissions specialist.


What doesn’t need permission?

  • Facts. Such as, Earth is a planet. Or raw data.
  • Ideas. You can discuss an idea (such as gravity) or even write it in your own words, without permission (from Newton).
  • Public domain. Once copyright has expired, there’s no need to ask. (Typically 50 years after death of the copyright holder.) Publicly available or even freely available, however, does not mean it is in the public domain.
  • Alternatively licensed works. Creative Commons, for example, explicitly permits certain uses right up front, so there is no need to ask. Make sure that the CC license permits the use you are making of the material. Wikipedia, for example, permits reuse of much material, but only if you don’t get financial or business benefit from it.

Further reading

Video. Several parts of this “Copyright Basics” video talk about getting permission, though most of it is about copying and sharing, rather than including bits in your new work. This is a great production, and the US (C) principles are similar enough to Canadian law to be helpful.

Websites. The University of Toronto’s advice for thesis authors is short, clear, and convincing. If you read nothing else, read this.

The Canadian Copyright Act.

Books. Editing Canadian English, sections 11.48-11.50.

The Copyright Handbook. (US)

CMOS, chapter 4 (US)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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