Permission: What Is It and Why Do I Need It?

Obtaining copyright permission is the process of getting consent from a copyright owner to use the owner’s creative material. Obtaining permission is often called “licensing”; when you have permission, you have a license to use the work. Permission is often (but not always) required because of intellectual property laws that protect creative works such as text, artwork, or music. (These laws are explained in more detail in the next section.) If you use a copyrighted work without the appropriate permission, you may be violating—or “infringing”—the owner’s rights to that work. Infringing someone else’s copyright may subject you to legal action. As if going to court weren’t bad enough, you could be forced to stop using the work or pay money damages to the copyright owner.

As noted above, permission is not always required. In some situations, you can reproduce a photograph, a song, or text without a license. Generally, this will be true if the work has fallen into the public domain, or if your use qualifies as what’s called “fair use.” Both of these legal concepts involve quite specific rules and are discussed more fully in subsequent chapters. In most cases, however, permission is required, so it’s important to never assume that it’s okay to use a work without permission.

Many people operate illegally, either intentionally or through ignorance. They use other people’s work and never seek consent. This may work well for those who fly under the radar—that is, if copyright owners never learn of the use, or don’t care enough to take action. The problem with this approach—besides its questionable ethics—is that the more successful the project becomes, the more likely that a copyright owner will learn of the use. Therefore, if you want your project to become successful, unauthorized use becomes an obstacle.

Some people avoid getting permission because they don’t understand the permissions process or consider it too expensive. However, the process is not difficult and the fee for use of common text, photo, or artwork is often under $200 per use. In some cases, it’s free. On the other hand, the legal fees for dealing with an unauthorized use lawsuit can easily cost ten to 50 times the average permission expense—or more!


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