Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Hypatia Project: Copyright Guidance: Permissions

An introductory guide about copyright issues relating to the digitisation of print materials

Permission to Use Copyright Works

If you want to use a substantial part of copyright work and none of the fair dealing exceptions apply, you may still be able to use the material legally if you are granted the relevant permission or licence to use the copyright material for your intended use.

To cut down on stress later start thinking about permission early on. It can take some time to trace the copyright owners and gain permission.


If you need permission to use material, first check to see if the copyright holder has expressly outlined how their material may be used. They may have licensed certain use so that you do not need to apply individually for permission.

However, not all material will be annotated in this way. Where there is no explicit licence or permission stated, you will need to seek permission.

Creative Commons Licences

Increasingly you will see content made available with Creative Commons Licences attached. The Creative Commons Licences provide a simple standardized way for copyright owners to give permission for sharing and reuse of content.

For example:

Attribution - CC BY licence

This is the most generous, and allows others to copy, distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon work, even commercially, as long as users credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. It is recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs - CC BY-NC-ND

This licence is the most restrictive, only allowing others to download works and share them with others as long as they credit the original, but they can't change them in any way or use them commercially.

For example, look at the resources. Scroll to the bottom of the page and you will see the creators have licensed this material under the CC-BY licence.  So, provided you acknowledge the original work, you can copy/share/adapt the material.


Watch this short video to learn more about Creative Commons.  And for further information, explore the wealth of materials If you want to learn more, take some time to explore the rest of the materials available through the Creative Commons suite of webpages.


Creative Commons Kiwi by Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand (CC BY) license.

If there is no obvious licence or permission granted by the copyright owner you need to seek permission.

The most important thing is to START SEEKING PERMISSION AT THE EARLIEST OPPORTUNITY.  Sometimes it can be difficult to trace the copyright owner, and sometimes the owners take a long time to respond or do not respond at all. You do not want to be tackling these permission issues as an afterthought in your project scheduleule, so deal with them as they arise. 

If you are using material that is still in copyright, ask yourself....


Think of the permission process as a three step process.




Be aware that there could be multiple copyright owners you need to consider.  In a book, there may be artists who own photographic or illustrative work copyright, the author who may own the literary copyright in the work and the publisher who owns copyright over the typographical arrangement of a work.

Often authors and illustrators assign the copyright of the work to the publisher as part of book contract processes, so the publisher can be a useful starting point for seeking permissions.

Tips for Identifying the Rights Holder

Try the Publisher First

  • The best starting-point for seeking permission and locating authors is generally the first publisher of a book, or the journal containing an article.

  • Publishers generally have rights in recent work that have been assigned by the author, i.e. as part of a book deal, the author assigns their copyright in the work to the publisher.

  • Even if the publisher does not hold rights they will often pass on your request to an author if they have their details. 

Random House publishing (now a subsidiary of Bertelsmann) has this advice on its site:

"An author, publisher, organisation or other party may control the rights to a book. You can see who first published a book, and who owns its copyright, by checking the information on the copyright page at the front of the book. The first publisher of the book is the one you should approach about the rights.”

 Accessed 14/11/2017.

  • If you are using material from major publishers, e.g. bodies such as Cambridge University Press or Oxford University Press, then it is easy to locate a rights holder contact.    Typically the  major publisher will have a rights/permissions web pages with contact details and sometimes links to online permission forms that you can use to request permission. For example, see this CUP information.

  • If an item has an ISBN or ISSN, this will help you identify the author and publisher of the material. You can search by ISBN on joint catalogues such as Library Hub Discover and WorldCat.

  • Unfortunately, it will not always be this straightforward. You may need to spend time working out which individual or organisation is likely to be the rights holder and then trace their current contact details. 

  • If you are unsure whether the publisher still exists and you cannot locate them on the web,  you can check Firms Out of Business (FOB)This is a listing of “literary” related publishers and agents.  It is not exhaustive, as it is relatively new, but has information on both major publishers and some obscure ones.


Tracing Authors

  • If you know the author but have not had any luck tracking them down through a publisher try the WATCH database (Writers, Artists and their Copyright Holders) 

  • The WATCH database lists the rights-holders for many famous authors, but is less likely to hold obscure authors and relates mainly to writers and artists.  Some prominent historical figures are included.


Spare Rib

  • If you are interested in creating digital reproductions of articles in Spare Rib, please read the British Library’s web-page on ethical use and seek permission from the individual author you are using



  • The book or journal you are digitizing should have acknowledged any photographs or illustrative material, so you should have the name of the artist or photographer, again the first place to start is the publisher. 

  • If the material is older and is a photograph of an individual, try searching  National Portrait Gallery to see if a portrait photograph of the sitter by the same photographer is included in their collection. They will generally note whether a photograph is in copyright. 
  • Sometimes a simple Google search with the photographer’s name and “copyright” added to the search will locate them!

Alternative Images

  • If you are unable to trace the artist to gain permission to use an image, or permission is refused, consider whether you could substitute a different image to convey the same message.

  • If the image is of a person, is there any copyright free image available? Or is an image available from another source that is willing to grant permission

  • The Using Images LibGuide has lots of helpful advice on this, including links to sites with images that are licensed for re-use without permission.

It is recommended that you request permission in writing; this can be by letter, email or online form. The Permission Template in this guide will help you.

If you obtain verbal permission, by phone for example, it is good practice for you to follow this up with a written request outlining the agreement, should you need to rely on this at a later date.

You cannot assume that no response is permission to proceed. It is your responsibility to gain permission before proceeding.  Repeat your requests.

After continued non-response you will need to decide how to handle the material for which you have no permission; see the No Permission section.

Keep a note of all your permission seeking activities.  

You will want a note of all items for which permission has been granted and can be used legally in your work. Some rights owners may specify particular forms of acknowledgments and you need to include these if they are a condition of permission. Or they may grant permission but only on certain conditions and you will need to make sure you adhere to these.

Also keep a note of those items for which you do not have permission because you are unable to identify or trace rights holders and for items where permission requests have not been responded to by the rights holder. You will need to decide how to proceed with this copyright material for which you do not have permission.

If you keep good records you will know exactly where you are as regards your copyright work.

There is no set format for permission requests. As mentioned previously, some publishers will have online forms you can use for this purpose or set licence forms that need to be completed.

In all cases you should be clear about:

  • the material you wish to use - be specific about the amounts (include page numbers or other identifiers)
  • how you intend to use it, e.g. be specific about how you will reproduce the material and make it available, e. via scanning/photography and posting openly on the web for example. 

Below is some text that you can modify for your purposes.  You can tailor this to your recipient and the exact content you wish to use. Edit the text and replace or delete all the material in [bold brackets].




Dear [Name of copyright owner]




I am a [your position: student, researcher, scientist] at the University of Exeter. I am working as part of The Hypatia Project  [insert detail about the Hypatia project].


I understand that you are the [author/publisher] of the following material:

[insert details of material sought to be used. Be specific. Outline pages/paragraph numbers and detail any illustration identifiers etc.  If you want to use various materials from the same book, list them separately in a bulleted/numbered list so it is clear exactly what you are referring to].


I am writing to ask your permission to use the material in the following way:


  1. to reproduce the material by [indicate your intended use, e.g. in digital form by scanning/photographing and/or any other means you plan to use];
  2. to communicate the material via [indicate your planned dissemination route, e.g. on the Internet via the Hypatia Project website where it will be openly accessible, and/or any other means you plan to use];
  3. [insert a description of any other required uses].

The purpose of the use would be to [explain the aims of the Hypatia project and how the inclusion of this copyright material is integral to the project.].


If you are not the rights holder

If you do not hold the copyright in all of the material, I would appreciate any contact information you can give me regarding the proper rights holder(s).  Otherwise, your permission confirms that you hold the right to grant the permission requested here.


If you agree to this request

If you agree to this request as set out above, please respond to indicate that “Permission is granted for the use of the material as described above”.



Company/Organisation: (if applicable)  

Sometimes you will not be able to secure permission to reuse the material

  • This may be because you do not know who the rights holder is.  
  • It may be because your permission requests are met with no response. 
  • It may be that the copyright holder refuses permission (or perhaps will grant permission but only on the payment of a fee or by imposing other restrictions that make it impossible for you to proceed).

Keep a record of all such scenarios so that you have all the detail to hand when you need to make decisions on what to do.

What can you do?


Consider if you can substitute the work with another which is out of copyright or for which you have permission or licence.  


Can you use less material so that your use is not deemed 'substantial'? Remember that only substantial use will infringe the rights of the copyright owner.  However, sometimes it can be difficult to judge this and ultimately it will be decided on a case by case basis in the event of a dispute.


Consider the risk. If you get no response, are you prepared to proceed in the absence of permission?  Consider what would happen if the rightsholder discovers you have used the content at a later date. 

  • What if they look for financial compensation for your unauthorised use
  • What if they issue a 'take down' demand - would this have a huge impact on your project, or could the project sensibly stand without the withdrawn material? 

You can discuss these issues with your project leader to see the level of risk they are happy to assume for the project.  You may need to substitute or use less material instead of proceeding.


If you are refused permission, or get no response but decide that you could compromise the project by using an item that might need to be withdrawn later or could lead to dispute with a potential rightsholder,  then don't use it. Look again at the substitution option.

Sometimes, you have to look at a second best option if you cannot secure permission for your intended use of your first choice materials.

Contact Us