Working with Copyright–Protected Materials in a Digital Environment





Overview of PFA's Copyright Clearance Procedures

This procedural information about copyright clearance should be relevant to the efforts of any organization seeking to obtain permission to use copyrighted material, particularly in nonprofit, library, and research environments.

Since the CineFiles database’s public launch in 1996, it has offered access to public domain materials, as well as to copyright-protected materials that we have permission to display. Over the years, PFA has developed, tested, and refined the procedures outlined below for requesting copyright holders' permissions to provide online access to protected materials. This procedural information about copyright clearance should be relevant to the efforts of any organization seeking to obtain permission to use copyrighted material, particularly in nonprofit, library, and research environments.

This document describes strategies for identifying copyright holders and researching contact information, as well as resources available through the U.S. Copyright Office and even corporate entities to assist in such matters. The process developed by PFA involves using permissions packets whose delivery and status are tracked in a database, and also, importantly, making personal contact with identified copyright holders which can greatly facilitate achieving permission to display material. We present here several possible scenarios that may arise in this process, and our responses, including such challenges as difficulty in identifying actual copyright holders, and resistance or refusal to permit display of copyrighted materials. Also detailed here are the necessary tasks involved in tracking and administering the permissions process when many hundreds of documents and copyright holders may be involved. Finally, we address the feasibility to date of using various copyright-protecting technologies.

Identifying Copyright Holders

Our first step in obtaining copyright clearance is determining to the best of our ability who, or what entity, holds copyright to the document we wish to display. When the document's source is a recognized publishing entity, such as a book publisher, a magazine, or a newspaper, we begin with the assumption that the publisher holds the copyright. We confirm, clarify, or revise this assumption according to what we learn in our initial contact with the entity we first assume to be the document's source.

Documents that have ambiguous sources or are not cited must be researched on a case-by-case basis. Basic clues may help identify the origin of the document.  For example, the copyright permissions analyst might identify the typographic style of a particular newspaper and verify publication of the article in question using periodical indexes.  The analyst might identify the original producer of a film to verify the source of press kits or souvenir materials, and so on.

Researching Contact Information

Our next step in the permissions process is doing the research necessary to establish the contact information (address, phone number, and e-mail) for the assumed copyright holder. We enter the obtained information in our digital rights management database. 

To facilitate workflow, we currently maintain digital rights management data in two information systems. The first is a Filemaker Pro database from which we produce permissions packets and track in-progress actions on securing rights. The second is the CineFiles database, a Sybase SQL relational database, where a table is populated by migrating pertinent data from the Filemaker Pro database at regular intervals. 

Contact information research most often involves an Internet search for an organization's website, where locating an appropriate e-mail address and/or a phone number is usually fairly straightforward. If necessary, we consult information sources such as the masthead of a newpaper or the back of a book's title page to help identify the publisher's full name and address or location.

Researching U.S. Copyright Office Records

One can also use the services of the U.S. Copyright Office to research the copyright status of a work.

Their records are open for inspection and search by the public. In addition, the Copyright Office offers a record search service at the hourly rate of seventy-five dollars for each hour or fraction of an hour. For information on searching the Copyright Office records concerning the copyright status or ownership of a work, see Circular 22 "How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work," and Circular 23, "The Copyright Card Catalog and the Online Files of the Copyright Office." (These are available on the Copyright Office website

Copyright Office records cataloged from January 1, 1978, to the present are available for searching in machine-readable form, including registration and renewal information and recorded documents. This search feature is available on the Copyright Office website cited above.

"How to Investigate the Copyright Status of the Work," Circular 22 published by the U.S. Copyright Office, offers several cautionary pieces of information concerning the limitations of copyright searches through their office. For example, before 1978, unpublished works were entitled to protection under common law without the need for registration. For later works, registration can be made at any time during a long period of twenty-eight years or more. For more information, consult the publication and/or website.

Rights and Permissions Companies and Consultants

Organizations and companies exist whose business is to clear copyright for use by various parties. One of the largest among these is the Copyright Clearance Center, a not-for-profit company established in 1978 at the suggestion of Congress. The mission of this company is to provide copyright owners and users of copyrighted materials with an efficient means for the exchange of permissions and royalties. The Copyright Clearance Center acts as an agent for thousands of registered publishers and hundreds of thousands of authors and creators. Information is found on their website,, where a specific section addresses the needs of those in academia and libraries.

Securing permissions

Once we have determined the assumed copyright holder, our next step is to make personal contact to request permission.  In the early years of this project we first contacted copyright holders by simply mailing them permissions packets (described below). However, we were not satisfied with the number of signed permissions we were receiving relative to the number of packages sent out. We therefore decided to change our procedure and initially make personal contact with the copyright holder, or someone in the copyright holder's organization, prior to sending out the permissions packet. By doing this we are able to confirm that the entity that we contact is indeed the document's copyright holder. Furthermore, we establish a relationship with a specific person to whom we can address the permissions packet, thereby ensuring that the package arrives in the hands of an appropriate person who is already familiar with us and our project. In this process we also identify a specific person we can contact to follow up.

Our preferred method of initial contact is by telephone. We explain our purpose and ask to speak to someone responsible for copyright permissions. When we reach someone who will discuss our request, we explain who we are and the nature of our project. We try to learn about the organization's policies in regard to making their material available online in a research database.

PFA's Permission Packets

Based upon contact research, we compile customized "permissions packets" that include a cover letter explaining who we are, the nature of the CineFiles project, and the objective of obtaining copyright permission. A permissions packet also contains a list of the copyright holder's documents currently in our database; a permission form for signature; a self-addressed, stamped envelope for return of the signed permission form; and a set of sample pages taken from the CineFiles website showing the actual screens a researcher would see when researching a given film title. 

When we receive the copyright holder's signed permission form, we enter this information in the Filemaker Pro digital rights management database. We change the copyright holder's status in our CineFiles database so that the copyright holder's documents (and all their future documents if blanket permission is given) are viewable by users of our CineFiles site on the World Wide Web.

Three Common Scenarios

In attempting to contact copyright holders, it is common to encounter the following three scenarios:

1. Further search for copyright holder

If persons contacted report that they are not the actual copyright holders of the document or documents in question, we try to learn as much as possible from them about who actually is, or is likely to be, the copyright holder. We proceed with this new contact as we did with the initial one. We also change the information recorded in our digital rights management databases.

2. Requesting, receiving, and documenting copyright clearance

If persons contacted are indeed the copyright holders and they feel they can grant permission, we ask for their mailing address and tell them we will be sending them a permissions packet. We then put together a permissions packet as described above, using the Filemaker Pro database to create a personalized standard cover letter, personalized permission form, and mailing envelope. The person who makes phone contact also composes and includes a second cover letter. This is simply a friendly note with a brief recap of the phone conversation, providing a direct phone number and e-mail address so they can make direct contact with the PFA copyright permissions analyst if they have questions.

The copyright permissions analyst keeps a detailed journal of all conversations and actions taken concerning each copyright holder. The phone conversation is dated and summarized. The permissions packet is sent out and the date recorded. We also make a calendar notation to contact the copyright holder if no signed permission form has been received after approximately one month. If a followup call is made, this is also recorded, and another call is scheduled for a week afterward, and so on. 

The amount of time required to complete various tasks in this process can vary significantly depending on the particular case and nature of the copyright-holding organization or entity. Individual authors have tended to respond more quickly to our requests for permission, and in such instances, the entire process can be completed in roughly forty-five minutes of total time over a few weeks. In other cases, it can take several weeks or even months to reach the appropriate person who oversees copyright permissions in an organization, and obtain a definitive response regarding the permission requested. The total time needed to complete all steps of the process may range from forty-five minutes to five or more hours.

When we receive the signed permission forms, the analyst changes the CineFiles database to reflect the change in the documents' status and to allow them to be displayed to users online. The analyst updates the Filemaker Pro database, noting that permission was given. The analyst also enters statistical information about the time spent on each phase of the process. The journal information recounting the interactions with the copyright holder is pasted into a notes box in the copyright holder's record.

In our experience, a successful permissions process typically takes from one to three months and requires between one to four hours of staff time.

3. Strategies in response to denial of copyright clearance

If the copyright holders, in our initial phone conversation, state that it is against their policy to grant permission, or if it appears problematic in any way, we explore other possibilities with them for providing access to their materials. Some copyright holders archive their articles on their own organization's website, in which case we can provide direct links.  It is important to ascertain whether the organization maintains durable URLs, to avoid the problem of "ink rot," or links that are no longer operative. We also inquire about whether there are other means by which the material can be accessed, such as a hosting website that handles their material and charges a fee (for example or ProQuest). We note such information in our Filemaker Pro database for future reference.  We include links to publishers' general websites for convenience when they are cited in CineFiles, but currently link to individual articles only if the publisher hosts them at no charge.

Other Conclusions: Technology and Copyright Clearance

As part of this IMLS-funded project, we hoped to learn more about how technology could be used to allow access to organizations' materials, such as tethering, password protection, protection from unauthorized downloads, and subscription/registration requirements. However, in practice it has become apparent in regard to these issues that the vast majority of the copyright holders we have contacted fall into one of two categories. Either they are too small to be interested in exploring more sophisticated alternatives available for limiting use of their copyrighted material on the Web, or they are large and multileveled bureaucracies whose legal departments do not allow for such individualized solutions to displaying their material at no charge. Although they may license materials to fee-based electronic repositories, larger organizations may find it more efficient to simply deny across the board all other outside use of their organization's materials. However, as demand for online access to copyright-protected documentation continues to grow and as the digital environment matures, it is inevitable that more copyright holders will be amenable to a greater range of such technological solutions.