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Copyright: Permissions

This guide provides information (not legal advice) to support NWC community decision-making in the use of copyright protected material in research, learning, and teaching.

Purpose of Guide and Disclaimer

This guide intends to refer NWC community users to accurate information. However, information received from the NWC Library or the NWC Copyright Librarian is neither legal advice/opinion nor legal counsel to the college or any members of the NWC community. Please contact the NWC Office of General Counsel or NWC Staff Judge Advocate's Office for NWC-related legal advice and interpretation of the law, or personal counsel for personal legal advice. The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by NWC of sites or the information, products, or services contained therein, nor does NWC exercise editorial control over the information found at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this guide. U.S. copyright law is subject to change.

Obtaining Copyright Permissions

Note: Obtaining permission should not be the first step. In fact, when solving a copyright problem, it is best to follow these steps:

  1. Determine whether the work is indeed protected by copyright (is it in the public domain or is it a government work?);
  2. If you are the author, be sure you did not transfer your exclusive rights of copyright to your publisher;
  3. Determine whether a license is available for use (Creative Commons or library-licensed);
  4. Determine whether there is a valid argument for fair use or whether another exception to copyright applies;
  5. If the work is protected by copyright, and there are no exceptions, licenses, and fair use does not apply, then seek permission to use the work.

In order to obtain permission to use the work, you must determine who holds the copyright for the particular work. If the work is a book or journal article, you can begin the process by determining the publisher of the book or journal. Next, you can contact the publisher directly to ask for permission (if the publisher is still in business, they will know who owns the copyright if they are not the rightsholder themselves).

Another reasonable step to take to determine who owns the copyright of the work is to search the U.S. Copyright Office page for that information. You may search the U.S. Copyright Office page for information about a particular work by title of the work, name of the author or publisher, keyword or registration number (if you know it). If you cannot locate the publisher, you may have found an "orphan work.

If the work is a sound recording, the job of locating the current owner of the sound recording copyright may be difficult, as these rights often get assigned quite frequently. Agencies are the rightsholders of many sound recordings in the music industry, so they may be a helpful starting point.

If the work is an audiovisual work and you want to show it in a face-to-face classroom, as part of your curriculum, see the teaching exception to the Copyright Act. If you want to show an in-copyright movie for a public showing at a film festival, student club, or an extra-curricular event, you need to obtain public performance rights (PPR) to show the movie. 

Permissions FAQ

What should I do if my use is not covered by an exception and the material is not in the public domain?

If your use of a copyrighted work is not covered by an exemption, license, or the work does not fall within the public domain, you may still contact the copyright holder and seek permission to use the work. It is helpful to consider whether your use would be protected under the fair use statute before seeking permission.

How do I get permission to use a work?

The first step in seeking permission to use a work is to identify the owner of the copyright or rightsholder. The owner of the copyright may be the author, the author’s employer, or any other individual to whom the author has transferred ownership (like a publisher). Once you have identified the owner, you may then begin the permission seeking process (see Univ. of Michigan Library's requesting permission guide). Also, please visit the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University to see procedural steps for securing permission and to view sample permission forms

Remember to give yourself ample lead time as the process for obtaining permissions may take a few months. Very rarely, you may not receive a response.

IMPORTANT:  If your use is non-profit and/or educational, make sure you note that in your request for permission.

Where can I find more information about government agency permissions best practices?

For more details see:

Identifying Copyright Holders

The initial copyright holder is the author(s) of a work. The author can then transfer all or part of the exclusive rights of copyright. Authors often transfer some rights to companies that publish or distribute their works. For more information about who qualifies as an author, including works for hire, and how copyrights are transferred, consult the Copyright Law page.

Below are some general strategies for identifying rightsholders and their contact information. The subsequent tabs in this box contain permission resources for specific types of material works. Those tabs list collective rights agencies that may be able to license the work you want to use. 

Remember that you do not need permission if you are using something that is not copyrightable or is in the public domain, if it is a library licensed work (check first to determine if the licensed terms cover your intended use), if it is a Creatives Commons licensed work (and the license allows your desired use), or if you are using it in a way that does not implicate one of the rights of copyright holders or is permitted by a user’s right.

The Work Itself

Copyright or contact information is often attached to or available with copies of the work. Published works usually contain copyright information. For books, this often appears on the back of the title page. Forewords, prefaces, and other notes from the author(s) or the publisher may also contain clues about who is the author of the work for the purposes of copyright law, who holds copyright today, and how to contact them. If the work is unpublished or there are limited copies of it, the owners of physical copies of the work (such as archives, special collections libraries, or museums) may also have information that will help you contact the rightsholder.


Writers Artists and Their Copyright Holders, commonly known as the WATCH File, is "a database of copyright contacts for writers, artists, and prominent figures in other creative fields." It is run jointly by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Reading Library. 

Firms Out of Business

Firms Out of Business (FOB), a companion to the WATCH file, is "a database with information about vanished publishing concerns, literary agencies, and similar firms." It is run jointly by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Reading Library. This is a good resource for tracing the history of publishing firms.

U.S. Copyright Office Records

Since only an author or copyright holder may claim copyright, the U.S. Copyright Office’s records of copyright registration and renewal can provide information about who holds copyright. Many works are not registered or renewed, but for those that are and were required to in the past, the U.S. Copyright Office has records of who registered or renewed the copyright. You can search records from 1978 to the present online in the Public Catalog.

For works registered or renewed before 1978, consult the Stanford Copyright Renewal Database and the Catalog of Copyright Entries.

The Copyright Office also has a collection of Copyright Historical Record Books that contains images of copyright applications and other records bound in books dating from 1870 to 1977 (currently in preview status with 500 record books containing registration applications for books from 1969 to 1977, with a majority of the record books being the most recent volumes from 1975 to 1977- digitized in reverse chronological order with periodic updates). You can also search the U.S. Copyright Office’s pre-1978 records in person in Washington, D.C. or pay the U.S. Copyright Office to search those records for you.

The Public Catalog includes transfers of copyright ownership that have been recorded with the U.S. Copyright Office. However, recording transfers is voluntary; many transfers are not recorded. For more information about recordation of transfers, consult Recordation of Transfers and Other Documents (Circular 12, PDF), a publication of the U.S. Copyright Office.

For more details, please see the U.S. Copyright Office's “How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work” (Circular 22, PDF).

Biographical Information

In the case of a human rightsholder (not a corporation), any copyrights the author holds at the time of their death will pass to their heirs, either via a will or, if the author had no will, through the intestacy laws of their state. Biographical information about the author, such as a biography or an obituary, will often be helpful in identifying those heirs. Even if the author’s heirs do not hold the copyright to the work, they may have information about who does.

Other People Who Might Know About the Work

If you can identify another person who used the work recently, consider asking them for contact information for the rightsholder.

A gallery that has exhibited or an auction house that has sold work by the author may have contact information for the author or the rightsholder. Even if the institution is unwilling to give out the contact information, it may be able to forward your request.

Others who might have information that would be useful to you include:

  • the rightsholder’s colleagues or employees
  • the rightsholder’s business partners and collaborators (e.g., co-writers, agents, producers, editors)
  • the rightsholder’s attorney
  • the rightsholder’s biographer(s)
  • the rightsholder’s friends and family (even if they are not heirs)


If you have determined that you require permission from the rightsholder in order to make a particular use of an in-copyright work, there are two options to consider:

  • Relying on an existing license that covers your use, or
  • Obtaining a new license.

Existing Licenses

In some cases, there may already be a license that permits the use you want to make.

  • Site licenses permit certain uses of copyrighted materials by individuals affiliated with the institution that has purchased the license. Your institution’s library is a good place to learn what works your institution has licensed and on what terms. A Library Primo Search indexes many works licensed for use by NWC authorized users. The terms on which authorized users can use those materials are found under SHOW LICENSE in the resource's Primo page and are also generally found on Terms of Use pages associated with the materials. In general, NWC electronic resources allow authorized users to link to licensed works (please see Harvard Business Publishing exception that prohibits this practice), but not to post PDFs on learning management system or electronic reserve platforms.
  • Public licenses permit certain uses of copyrighted materials by the public at large. They include Creative Commons licenses and open source software licenses. For example, the Creative Commons licenses are all public licenses, as are licenses on the lists of free software licenses maintained by the Free Software Foundation and licenses approved by the Open Source Initiative. If the work you wish to use has been released under a public license, you do not have to seek additional permission from the rightsholder in order to do the things authorized by the license. However, you do still need to follow the license terms. For example, the license may require attribution to the original author or it may forbid commercial uses. 

New Licenses

If there are no existing licenses that permit the use you want to make, you will need to get a new license from the rightsholder. To do that, you need to identify the work’s rightsholder(s) and contact them to ask for permission to use the work. See "Types of Licenses" below for more details on license types.

Please verify that the copyrighted work you have is legally obtained either from the rightsholder or another legal source.  

Determine what you need

It is best to know exactly what you want to do with the work before contacting the rightsholder. What you want to do with the work can impact what the license will cost and who can provide the license to you. The rights for some works are split among multiple rightsholders and is particularly common for music and film.

Thinking about what you need before contacting the rightsholder also saves you from having to go back and get another license. For example, if you are requesting permission to use an image in a journal article, check with the journal publisher first to make sure you obtain the correct license they require.

Identify the rightsholder(s)

To request permission, you will need to identify the work’s rightsholder or someone who is able to license the work on the rightsholder’s behalf. For more information, see the "Identifying Copyright Holders" tab in this box.

Send your request

Please find some sample permission letters here from Columbia University Libraries that can be modified for various permission requests. Whenever possible, make your request in the format preferred by the licensor. Most major rightsholders and licensing organizations prefer to receive requests via email or webform on their sites.

Asking a rightsholder for permission can be as simple as sending an email. Ultimately, you want to be sure to get permission in writing and clarify the important details of your use:

  • Describe the item you want permission to use
  • Describe how long you plan to use the item (e.g., 1 course/trimester)
  • Explain how you plan to use the item (e.g., post it on a password-protected site for course enrolled students only and only for the duration of the course)
  • Provide information about the context of the use (e.g., educational use along with a description of the learning objective/commentary or analysis you hope to have with students)

If there is a deadline by which you need a response, consider including it in the letter. It may improve your chances of hearing back in time. Obtaining permission can take a long time, so it helps to start as early as possible. In some cases, you may not receive a response and must be prepared to re-evaluate the use for fair use or choose an alternative resource. Hearing a "no" permission response from a rightsholder does not prohibit you from using the work if falls within the four factors of fair use, but it is important to evaluate your use in good faith.

If permission is granted, be sure you adhere to the terms of your request, and of course, be sure to credit the source.

Keep records

Regardless of how you get the license, always keep copies of your correspondence, especially the license itself. Make note of and follow the terms and conditions.

Types of Licenses

In most situations, rightsholders can set the fee they charge for a license, and they can refuse to license a work. Licenses granted in such situations are called voluntary licenses. In a few situations, there are compulsory licenses available. Compulsory licenses are also called statutory licenses. When a compulsory license is available, anyone can license the work for that particular type of use by paying a predetermined fee. In the United States, such licenses are available for recording artists who record a cover of an earlier artist’s song. They are also available for cable companies that retransmit over-the-air broadcasts.

Another characteristic of a license is whether it is exclusive or non-exclusive. Exclusive licenses give the licensee exclusive rights. If you get an exclusive license to a particular right, the licensor cannot license that right to anyone else. For example, it is common for film studios to get exclusive licenses to produce screen adaptations of novels. In contrast, non-exclusive licenses allow the licensor to grant the same rights to more than one party. For example, when a theater licenses the rights to screen a movie, the license is often non-exclusive. The rightsholder can license other theaters to screen the movie at the same time.

Blanket licenses are another type of license. They give a licensee the right to use all of the works licensed by a particular organization. In the United States, blanket licenses are most commonly associated with the music industry. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC provide blanket licenses for their catalogs of musical works.

Purchasing the original work or a reproduction is not the same as purchasing or licensing the copyright. If you buy a painting, you own just the physical painting, not the copyright. Getting a copyright transfer or license requires a separate agreement with the rightsholder.

When to Seek Permission

Remember that you do not need permission if you are using something that is not copyrightable or is in the public domain. You also don't need permission if you are using it in a way that does not implicate one of the rights of copyright holders or is permitted by a user’s right, such as fair use. For more information on these topics, please consult the Copyright Law page.

IMPORTANT: Always review the terms of use for the source you are using as well as the copyright status of each individual item you would like to use. Some collections include a mixture of public domain, openly licensed, and other copyrighted material.

Collective Management Organization for Textual Works

What is the Copyright Clearance Center?

The Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) works with many publishers to help authors, educators, and others seek and pay for the right to use copyrighted materials. CCC provides a centralized service for seeking permissions to use the materials to create paper or electronic course packs, to include materials in books or other published materials, and to place items, that fall outside of fair use, on library reserves. Individuals or institutions may set up accounts and license requests may be made online. Please contact the Copyright Librarian for any assistance.

Things to keep in mind:

  • CCC looks out for publishers' interests and not for your fair use rights (17 U.S.C. § 107).
  • There are flat fees to use the service in addition to the specific royalty payments per student.
  • A license through CCC is for a one-time use and only covers the use (CCC will not provide you with a copy of the work- you must have your own legally obtained copy).
  • CCC licenses come with specific terms and conditions (including how to give proper attribution) that vary by publisher/rights owner.
  • In general, licensing is not available for using more than 30% of a work. 

Why use this service?

  • CCC is a central point for contacting many different publishers.
  • You can place requests for materials from several different publishers.
  • You can obtain a price quote on the royalty/permission fees before committing to using the material.
  • It is a simple process of online ordering and payment.

Best Practices to consider:

  • To retain your fair use rights, begin by weighing your use of a work for fair use.
  • Only use the CCC or similar service if your use does not fall under fair use.
  • Use the CCC if you are authoring a book or other material that is using copyrighted materials.

eBook License Purchase vs. Copyright Licensing Fees

Sometimes it is more efficient to purchase a license to access a digital version of a book (an eBook) with unlimited or multiple user access than it is to purchase a one-time copyright license from the Copyright Clearance Center.

The library can assist in the research for unlimited user access availability for eBook versions of a title. Purchase requests may be submitted through the Library's Primo site (you will need to login to Primo with your NWC credentials in order to submit the request).

In the case of reserves, if neither licensing mechanisms nor digital versions of the title exist, there will be less market harm. Please keep in mind, though, that if a book is "out of stock" or "out of print," it does not mean the work is not protected by copyright laws.

For licensing availability awareness, it is helpful to do a quick title or ISBN search in Copyright Clearance Center's Marketplace (CCC). The license purchased will only cover the one time use of the work; CCC will not provide a copy of the work. Sometimes, the publisher directly provides a mechanism for paid licensing (e.g., Naval Institute Press/UDNI). Please contact the Copyright Librarian for any assistance with this research.

When to Seek Permission

Remember that you do not need permission if you are using something that is not copyrightable or is in the public domain. You also don't need permission if you are using it in a way that does not implicate one of the rights of copyright holders or is permitted by a user’s right, such as fair use. For more information on these topics, please consult the Copyright Law page.

IMPORTANT: Always review the terms of use for the source you are using as well as the copyright status of each individual item you would like to use. Some collections include a mixture of public domain, openly licensed, and other copyrighted material.

Note: If you are unsuccessful in identifying a rightsholder, of a work please go to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to search for the distributor's name.

Collective Management Organizations for Audiovisual Works

The following organizations issue licenses for public performance or display of audiovisual works.

  • Criterion Pictures licenses non-theatrical public performance of feature films from studios, including Paramount Pictures (select titles only), 20th Century Fox, Fox SearchLight, and DreamWorks Animation.
  • Kino Lorber EDU licenses films for one-time community screenings by colleges, universities, libraries, and non-profit organizations. It specializes in art-house and international films.
  • Motion Picture Licensing Corporation offers a blanket license, called the "Umbrella License," that gives licensees public performance rights for its full catalog of audiovisual works. MPLC does not issue licenses for individual works.
  • Swank Motion Pictures or Movie Licensing USA (a division of Swank) license non-theatrical public performance of movies and TV shows from studios, including Disney, Warner Brothers, MGM, Columbia Pictures, and NBC Universal.

Film Studios and Distributors

If you want to license a work or a right not covered by licenses from the collective management organizations listed above, going directly to the studio or the distributor is another option. For instance, if you are seeking a license for clips or stills from a studio film, it is common to get that license from the studio. Licensing departments for many major studios and distributors are linked in the list below.

  • Icarus Films
  • MGM Media Licensing: This site allows users to request clip and still licenses for works from MGM's collection.
  • Milestone Films
  • Paramount Theatrical Library: This site explains how to license clips from Paramount's Theatrical Library, including some DreamWorks films. Here is a link to their FAQ which lists a contact for clip and still licensing.
  • Sony Pictures Film Clip & Still Licensing: This site explains how to request licenses of clips, stills, and other items from Columbia Pictures, TriStar Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation, Screen Gems, Stage 6 Films, and Revolution Studios.
  • Universal Studios Media Licensing: This site offers clip and still licenses for works from the Universal Pictures, Focus Features, DreamWorks Animation, and MCA Television libraries.
  • Walt Disney Studios Licensing Website: This site explains how to license clips, stills, and other materials from Disney's catalog, which includes Lucasfilm, Marvel Films, Miramax Films, and Dimension Films.
  • Warner Brothers Clip and Still Licensing Info: This site explains how to request licenses for clips and stills from the Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Turner Entertainment Co., Castle Rock Entertainment, New Line Cinema (including Picturehouse and Fine Line), and Hanna Barbera feature, television, and animation libraries.
  • Women Make Movies

Other Rights in Audiovisual Works

Many audiovisual works contain "layers" of copyrights and other rights that may be controlled by separate rightsholders. In some cases, like when you obtain a public performance license from a licensor such as Criterion or Swank, the licensor provides all the rights you need. In other cases, a single licensor may not be able to provide all the rights you need.

For example, in some cases, a studio may not be able to license the background music in a film clip. The producer of an audiovisual work most likely obtained a master use license from the record company for the sound recording and also synchronization and performance licenses from the music publisher for the composition embodying the recording (please see the "Musical Works and Sound Recordings" tab in this "Permissions" section for more details on music and licensing).

Actor Releases

Privacy and publicity rights in many states require that filmmakers obtain releases from a film's actors in order for the film to be distributed. If the actor is a SAG-AFTRA member, the terms and rates for such releases are often determined by union rules.

Note on Netflix original educational documentaries: 

Some Netflix original educational documentaries are available for one-time screenings in educational settings including campus events as long as the event is non-profit and non-commercial. For more information, see Netflix's policy on Educational Screenings of Documentaries. Here is a link to search all of Netflix's titles. Netflix also made a selection of their documentary features and series available on their YouTube channel.

When to Seek Permission

Remember that you do not need permission if you are using something that is not copyrightable or is in the public domain. You also don't need permission if you are using it in a way that does not implicate one of the rights of copyright holders or is permitted by a user’s right, such as fair use. For more information on these topics, please consult the Copyright Law page.

IMPORTANT: Always review the terms of use for the source you are using as well as the copyright status of each individual item you would like to use. Some collections include a mixture of public domain, openly licensed, and other copyrighted material.

Reverse Image Searches

Because images are often published without attribution, it can be especially difficult to locate their rightsholders. If you have an image you would like to license but need to identify and contact the rightsholder, a reverse image search engine may be helpful. You can use a reverse image search engine to find out where an image came from, where it is being used, and whether higher resolution or modified versions of the image exist.

For more guidance, please see University of Michigan's "How To: Flip Your Content" Guide to assist you in reverse image search third-party images to determine if they are open, licensed with a Creative Commons license, or require permission/paid licensing. The document also makes suggestions on how to find openly licensed resources.

Collective Management Organizations for Stock Images

Some of these images are "free" while others require licensing fees. "Royalty-free" means that you don't have to pay royalty fees for use, but you may still have to pay a fee for the image. Some sites may require accounts to be set up. Visit these sites with caution as some contain many pop-up ads and read the fine print before you use any image.

Collective Management Organizations for Comics & Cartoons

  • Andrews McMeel Syndication: Offers one-time and reprint rights as well as extended licensing for products and merchandise. Its catalog includes comics (such as Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury, and For Better or For Worse) as well as editorial cartoons (from cartoonists such as Tom Toles and Lalo Alcaraz).
  • The Cartoonist Group: Licenses comics (including Bizarro, Pickles, and Zits) as well as editorial cartoons (such as those by Ann Telnaes and Matt Wuerker).
  • CartoonStock: Licenses comic and editorial cartoons. Its catalog can be searched by subject or artist.
  • Creators Syndicate: Licenses editorial cartoons, including those by Mike Luckovich and Bob Gorrell. It also licenses comics, including The Wizard of Id and Agnes.
  • Licenses cartoons and stock images. Users can search its catalog by subject.
  • King Features Licensing: Manages the rights to several comic characters, including Popeye, Blondie, and Dennis the Menace.
  • New Yorker Cartoon Bank: Conde Nast licenses cartoons from The New Yorker on this site.
  • Tribune Media Syndicate: Catalog includes Annie, Dick Tracy, and Love Is…. Its editorial cartoonists include Scott Stantis and Dan Wasserman.

Collective Management Organizations for Fine Art

  • Art Resource: Licenses “[h]igh quality images of works of painting, sculpture, architecture and the minor arts” from museums and archives around the world.
  • Artists Rights Society: A major U.S. collective management organization for visual artists. It represents over 80,000 visual artists and estates of visual artists from around the world.

When to Seek Permission

Remember that you do not need permission if you are using something that is not copyrightable or is in the public domain. You also don't need permission if you are using it in a way that does not implicate one of the rights of copyright holders or is permitted by a user’s right, such as fair use. For more information on these topics, please consult the Copyright Law page.

IMPORTANT: Always review the terms of use for the source you are using as well as the copyright status of each individual item you would like to use. Some collections include a mixture of public domain, openly licensed, and other copyrighted material.

Musical Works and Sound Recordings

There are two ways that copyright protects music.

  • Musical works: A musical work is the composition itself, possibly including lyrics. Musical works receive the full set of rights under copyright law, just like like literary, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works.
  • Sound recordings: A sound recording is a fixation of a series of sounds that does not accompany an audiovisual work. For example, Fleetwood Mac's 1975 rendition of Landslide is a sound recording. Their 1980 live concert recording of it is also a sound recording and is a separate copyrighted work. The The Chicks' (formerly the Dixie Chicks) 2002 cover of the song is yet another copyrighted work. Copyright in sound recordings is slightly narrower than copyright in other works—it includes a right to perform the work to the public, but only "by means of a digital audio transmission." Performing a sound recording to the public in an analog manner does not implicate the copyright in the sound recording. Before 1972, sound recordings were not eligible for federal copyright protection in the United States. For more information about pre-1972 sound recordings, read Protection for Pre-1972 Sound Recordings under State Law and Its Impact on Use by Nonprofit Institutions: A 10-State Analysis (PDF), a report prepared for the National Recording Preservation Board by the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property in 2009. 

When a sound recording is based on a musical work, many uses of the sound recording are also uses of the musical work. In those cases, if permission is needed, it must be obtained from the rightsholder of each work.

Note: As of 1 January 2022, approximately 400,000 sound recordings made before 1923 joined the public domain in the U.S. for the first time due to the Music Modernization Act (

Performance Rights Organizations

In the United States, public performance rights licenses for musical works are generally obtained from one of the following performance rights organizations (PRO). All three of these PROs sell blanket licenses, which permit licensees to perform publicly any music from the licensor’s catalog. This type of performance might include sound recordings played on a radio station, tv station, or restaurant. Licenses from these PROs are for “small rights” only. Separate licenses involving “grand rights” must be obtained for dramatic performances of musical works (see below). The three main PROs in the U.S. are:

There is also a digital public performance right for sound recordings. Digital audio transmission performances (e.g., webcasters performing recorded music digitally over the internet) require a license fee to be paid to the record companies. This license fee is managed by an intermediary and the sole organization designated by the U.S. Congress to collect and distribute digital performance royalties for sound recordings is:

  • SoundExchange issues licenses to commercial webcasters, noncommercial webcasters, and other services such as satellite radio. The licensing rates it charges are set by the Copyright Royalty Board.

Music Publishers

By custom, in the U.S. music industry, the music publisher directly licenses the musical work for dramatic performances (see below), for reproduction by sheet music publishers (called a reproduction license), and for publication by foreign publishers (called a subpublishing license). It also directly licenses synchronization licensing or the rights to use the musical work as part of an audiovisual work such as a movie, TV show, or TV commercial. Several of the largest music publishers are listed below.

  • BMG: A publishing catalog that includes songs from Johnny Cash, Aerosmith, and Nirvana. Unlike traditional music publishers, BMG also has a recording catalog.
  • Kobalt: A publishing catalog that includes songs from John Denver, the Dixie Chicks, and 50 Cent. Unlike traditional music publishers, Kobalt also has a recording catalog.
  • Sony Music Publishing: A catalog that includes songs from The Beatles, Carole King, and Pharrell Williams.
  • Universal Music Publishing Group: A catalog that includes songs from the Beach Boys, Billy Joel, and Adele.
  • Warner/Chappell: A publishing catalog that includes songs from Eric Clapton, Jay Z, and Madonna.

Grand Rights

To license a public dramatic performance of a musical work, you need a license that covers grand rights. This is a contractual distinction not included in copyright law itself. Grand rights are involved in:

  • Performances of musical works that tell a story (e.g., operas, musicals), unless only an excerpt is used, and in a non-storytelling way, AND
  • Performances that combine musical works with choreography, acting, etc.


  • Grand rights: Vocalists performing a scene from an opera or an actor singing a pop song during a play.
  • Small rights: A soloist performing an aria.

Grand rights can usually be obtained from the music publisher or even the composer.

Mechanical Licenses

Mechanical licenses apply to reproduction and distribution of musical works on records and CDs, in permanent digital downloads, and in some other digital uses. For example, these licenses permit subsequent recording artists to “cover” songs written by others. The royalty rates for records, CDs, and permanent digital downloads are set by statute, and the licenses are compulsory. The Harry Fox Agency, an intermediary between a publisher and a record company, is the primary source for mechanical licenses in the United States.

Licensing Sound Recordings

The copyright in sound recordings is customarily held by record companies. If a recording was self-released, the artist most likely holds the copyright. Amazon also lists the copyright holder for most of the music it sells and can be a good resource for finding this information. The three largest record companies are:

Because there is no analog public performance right in sound recordings, terrestrial radio and television stations and venues such as restaurants do not need licenses to perform sound recordings publicly. They do, however, often need licenses for public performances of the underlying musical works, as explained above.

There is a digital public performance right for sound recordings as well as explained above.

Music on YouTube

For more information on YouTube's policies, visit their Copyright and rights management page.