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Permissions Use In Copyright

There’s a lot of truth in the old saying, it’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. There are, however, usually exceptions to every rule (of thumb) and copyright is one of them. Here, therefore, is a quick guide to what you need to understand to use certain key forms of copyrighted content in a legal manner.


What you really need to understand about using music is that there is a distinction made between the music itself and the performance. Let’s say you are an amateur performer and want to record your own cover version of Yesterday by the Beatles. In that case, you simply need the rights to use the song. If, however, you are a film producer and want to use a version of the song Yesterday by the Beatles in the sound-track to one of your films, then you will need to secure the rights to use that particular performance of it. Having said that, if you frequently need to use music for commercial purposes, you may find it simpler to sign up to a collective licensing organisation and stick with their stock. Likewise if you are buying commercial sound sample packs then they will probably be sold with a licence which allows you to use them as much as you want as often as you want, although again this is worth checking.


We hope you realise this already, but there is a big difference between “for public consumption” and copyright-free. In other words, pictures on social media and such like are still subject to copyright and if you wish to use them you need to find the person who owns the copyright, which may or may not be the person who posted the photograph, particularly in the case of celebrity accounts, where the pictures may well have been taken by a professional photographer (although the celebrity may have purchased the copyright to the image). Non-celebrity social media accounts can also be tricky since “selfies” may actually have been taken by someone else. There are internet banks of royalty-free images such as Wikimedia Commons but even here, it’s a good idea to check the specific licence under which it is issued. Again, if in doubt, your best bet is probably to go to commercial agencies and/or to sign up for one of the chargeable image banks, which provide stock photography suitable for commercial purposes.


If you are just quoting a small part of a text, for example, in an academic paper, then it is probably sufficient just to cite the reference. If, however, you want to use a substantial part of the text (even if it is less than the whole), then you need to find the owner of the copyright (or confirm that the text is out of copyright for whatever reason). In the analogue world, this is generally pretty straightforward as the relevant details are usually stated within the publication itself. In the digital world, life can get a little more complicated. As a rule of thumb, digital editions of paper publications will probably contain the information you need to start the process of licensing the content legally. You may, however, have to do rather more digging to find the legal owner of other forms of digital content. For example, some digital magazines and websites use “guest content”, which often translates as an author providing content for free, but retaining copyright. The publication benefits from the content and the author benefits from the exposure. In these sorts of cases, you might well find yourself having to start with the magazine publisher/website owner, who would then clarify who owns the copyright and, if necessary, put you in touch with the relevant person. This process itself can be fairly simple, but it can be lengthier than simply contacting a print publisher and asking permission to use the text, so it’s a good idea to start the process as soon as you possibly can.

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