Working with Copyright–Protected Materials in a Digital Environment







The following case studies illustrate, through real-world examples, various situations that may arise when attempting to obtain permission from copyright holders to display their materials online. We chose to present these case studies in the first person to best illustrate how case-specific and involved the  interaction and relationship between the copyright permissions analyst and the copyright holder can be. It is certainly necessary to have in place a system of procedures for seeking copyright permissions that can be evaluated and revised to improve efficiency over the course of the project. However, equally essential on a day-to-day basis are flexibility, resourcefulness, patience, persistence, and "people" skills. While a clear plan for moving through the permission-seeking process is indispensable, these more intangible elements play an enormous part in ultimate effectiveness and success.

-- Stephanie Boris, Copyright Permissions Analyst, Pacific Film Archive

Book Publisher Source Is Not Copyright Holder

In this case, the source of the document, an excerpt from a book, was not the copyright holder. When I contacted the publisher of this book, I was told that I needed to contact the author directly. I was given a mailing address for the author, so I sent a letter with the permissions pack. He e-mailed me and eventually sent back the signed form.

Case Study 1. Book Author (click for details)


Book Publisher Source Is Copyright Holder

In this case the publisher was the source and copyright holder of several book excerpts, so I worked directly with them and secured permission to display material not just from one book, but from several different books, with one permission form.

Case Study 2: Book Publisher (click for details)

Magazine: Still in Process

This is a good example of a straightforward copyright holder, the source and publisher of the document, who seems inclined to grant permission. However, the wheels of the organization turn slowly, and it is hard to actually connect with the person I have made contact with when I make follow-up calls. 

As I did in this case, I have found that at a big organization like a magazine or a newspaper, a very good first contact to make is with the company's librarian. Librarians are usually approachable, and are "wired" differently from the more corporate types. They want to figure out how to get done what we need done, and who we should speak with to facilitate the process.

Therefore, I contacted the librarian at this magazine, and he gave me a name and a direct number for someone to talk to. After seven phone calls (with messages left each time), and two months, I finally was able to speak to the person in charge of permissions. She said it "should be fine," but it has now been three more months, and she still has not managed to get the okay from her legal department and get back to me.

Case Study 3: Magazine Still in Process (click for details)

Magazine: Permission Granted

This case, also a magazine, is similar to the previous example in the considerable time and effort required. However in this example, six months after the initial contact, we were successful and received permission. It shows, I think, how different each entity is, and that it is not possible to take "short cuts" and second-guess what a given category of organization or copyright holder is going to do. This particular magazine is published by a large company, and yet they have a markedly different policy about their content than, for example, some other major newspaper and magazine publishers do.

Case Study 4: Magazine Permission Granted (click for details)

Newspaper With Prohibitively Expensive Permissions Cost

Certain newspapers or magazines allow display of their articles, but only under conditions that are so prohibitive (such as a licensing fee for each individual article that covers only a limited term of use) that permission is effectively denied to non-profit entities like ours that wish to freely display possibly hundreds of different articles for an unlimited, continuous period. In attempting to obtain permission to display materials published by this newspaper publisher, for example, I learned that it does not permit display of any material without a license and substantial fee payment. In our case, the fee amount was quoted at a minimum of $20,000. However, it is often possible to link to articles on a copyright holder’s own website, which we did in this case.

Case Study 5: Major Daily Newspaper (click for details)

Newspaper With Content By Freelance Writers

Many periodicals employ writers who hold individual copyright to their work and can be contacted directly. This example concerns a newspaper that essentially does not own the copyright to any of its material. Pursuing permissions is a matter of tracking down the writers, some of whom the publication staff can help us find. We then send permission forms to individual writers, usually via initial e-mail contact and then by sending the permissions packets to a mailing address. This process is an ongoing task that has been underway for the past year. I assume this process will continue for some time, as we gradually are succeeding in contacting each individual writer personally. Seeking out copyright permission from these authors tends to be very effective, because individual writers, once you find them, are almost always willing to give permission. In fact, I don't think a single one of them has refused!

Case Study 6: Freelance Writer Max A. (click for details)

Online Linking

Online linking is a significant means of accessing material that is otherwise not made available by the publisher or copyright holder. Primarily in the case of newspapers, articles and reviews are made available on the newspapers website. There is no restriction on linking to these articles from our own website, and no formal permission is required. Thus, we can provide links on relevant pages in the CineFiles site ( that take the user directly to the relevant pages on the copyright holder's website.

What is actually available through linking, and whether it is free or not to the user, is often a complex matter, with newspapers sometimes having different restrictions on material before or after a certain date. We have opted to provide links to articles on other entities' websites if this is the only way our users can get easy access to the material.  At present, our policy is to link only to materials offered on the publishers websites at no charge.

The case below is that of a newspaper and a high-profile freelance writer whose material was not owned by the newspaper in which it was published. Ultimately this writer put up his own website, on which his reviews are available at no charge. For purposes of our project, we are providing links from our website to his website, for the articles we have in our database.

And so begins the saga of one of the longest-running, if not THE longest running interchanges in my journal.

Case Study 7: Providing Access via Linking (click for details)

Film Studio Press Kits

Although this is an esoteric category that will most likely not be represented in other organizations' materials, I have included it here as an example of a realm that has been particularly difficult to penetrate. Moreover, since these materials are essentially "public relations" documents, they are likely to be analogous to any materials in a collection that originate with a PR agency. Studios (and public relations firms) are organizations that do not normally receive requests such as ours. At the same time, they have large legal departments, and the rest of their staff has seemingly been trained to refrain from making any sort of unilateral decision. These organizations tend to hire younger people, and as a result, there is a huge turnover. These factors combine to create a situation in which a permissions packet will be sent from one person to the next, through a maze of higher-ups, and tracking it is made all the more challenging by the fact that one's original contact person has often left the company by the time the second or third follow-up call is made.

Case Study 8: Film Studio (click for details)