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Copyright Quick Reference Guide

This guide provides basic information on copyright law to help you make sense of your copyright questions.

Determining whether you need to request permission and how to do so

For a narrative description of the process, see "Third-Party Permissions and How to Clear Them".

How long does copyright last in the US?

  • Works published in the US prior to 1927 (for sound recordings, prior to 1923) are considered to be in the Public Domain and do not have any copyright protection.
  • For other situations, see Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States. You may also find the Copyright Checkpoint online questionnaire helpful in determining whether an image and/or text that you want to use is protected.

Charts, tables, graphs, and other visualizations of data present complicated situations: see Copyrightability of Charts, Tables, and Graphs from the Copyright Office of the University of Michigan Library.

Keep in mind that even if a work is not protected by copyright in the US, you might still only be able to access after signing an agreement that imposes limits on what you can do with the work or by accessing it through a website with a terms of use that, like a signed agreement, might function as a contract limiting what what you can do with the work. For example, you might pay a museum for a high-resolution digital image of a work of art to be used only for a certain purpose, or you might access images of medieval manuscripts through a database that the UNT Libraries pays for access to but whose images can only be used for personal research.

Whom do I contact to obtain permission to use a copyrighted work?

To request permission to show a motion picture publicly: Many studios are represented in the US by one of two organizations:

To request permission to perform a musical work live or to play a recording of it live: Major musicians are represented in the US by one of the following performance rights organizations (PROs):

You can often contact the appropriate one of these organizations (whichever of them includes the work in its repertoire) rather than trying to reach the musician directly. UNT has blanket licenses with BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC allowing for performances of works in their repertoires on campus and at certain UNT-sponsored events off campus, but these blanket licenses do not include the right to use the works in dramatic settings, such as the theater or opera, so you would need a separate license to perform a work in a dramatic setting on campus. For questions about UNT's blanket licenses, contact Felix Olschofka.

Some major visual artists are represented in the US by one of the following:

Works of art held in museums can often be licensed through the museum's website (if known) or through a central clearinghouse such as:

Otherwise, try to contact the copyright owner. This is often the creator or publisher of the work. For digital images and other computer files in which the owner is not plainly featured, try looking at the file's metadata properties to see if either is recorded there.

If you are unable to determine who the copyright owner is or reach that person, the following entities may be able to assist you in obtaining copyright permission:

You may also consider contacting the United States Copyright Office for help in locating a copyright owner, but note that this office does not have complete records of all copyrighted materials.

In the case of a creator who is no longer alive, you can search for genealogical records or simply search the web to find possible heirs of copyright.

Completing such searches, even if they are all fruitless, can establish that one has completed his or her due diligence in attempting to locate a copyright owner, if use of a copyrighted work is ever questioned. Therefore, be certain to keep appropriate records that verifies you have completed these searches.

Requesting permission to use a copyrighted work

When requesting permission to use a copyrighted work, ensure you receive permission in writing in order to create documentation of the grant of rights. The UNT Libraries offer a sample submission request letter that authors may use:

To request permission to use content gathered from an interview, or to use someone's name, image, or other personal information

These matters do not relate to copyright law, but there can be other legal implications. ​UNT offers a Subject Release Form designed for getting permission to use someone's image in a multimedia work created by UNT (such as a promotional video).

For a personal project (in which UNT would not own the copyright), you might use an agreement such as this one which respects the rights of the interviewee concerning the story or information that they provide but also allows for appropriate use of the interview materials.

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