All academic writing builds on previous research. As Healey, Matthews, and Cook-Sather state in Writing about Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, we are “creating and contributing to scholarly conversations—an ongoing dialogue … that involves people and our construction of knowledge” (25). We cite other works to create a web of knowledge, each strand of which can be followed back to the original source by interested readers. But sometimes quoting and citing isn’t enough, and we want to reproduce substantial chunks of others’ creations (be they text or visual). That’s when you enter the gray, mushy, confusing world of copyright and permissions.

It is the author’s responsibility to get permission for reproducing any text or graphics that have been previously published. Remember that this applies even to your own previously published work. At CEL (as at most other publishers), we can not move forward with production until all permissions have been secured, and sometimes this permissions process can take a while. We encourage our authors and editors to get started early, so it doesn’t hold up the book.

This blog post will provide an overview of permissions, especially explaining when it is or is not necessary to get permission to reproduce text or visuals. We’ll follow up soon with another post that explains how to get permission from a publisher or creator, once you’ve decided that you need to.

Do you need to seek permission?

For works in the public domain

Copyright law is complicated, but generally the rights held by the creator of a work do expire. Currently (as of 2021), works published in the US before 1926 are in the public domain. Once works enter the public domain, “the public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it” (Stanford Libraries “Welcome to the Public Domain”). For works published after 1926, it’s more complicated (see Cornell University Library’s Copyright Term and Public Domain chart for the nitty-gritty details). All publications created by the federal government are also considered in the public domain. For works in the public domain, you do not need to seek permission.

For works with a Creative Commons license

Many more recent works published online have a Creative Commons license. The beauty of these licenses is that they tell you exactly what you are and aren’t allowed to do with them. The licenses span from the most open (CC0, which places the work in the public domain) to more restrictive (CC BY-NC-ND, which allows people to download and use the work, share it with others as long as they give credit, but not alter it in any way). Any work with a Creative Commons license can be reproduced without permission, as long as you follow the terms of the license.

For copyrighted material

If you decide that the work you want to reproduce is still in copyright, you may still not need to get permission. Most of us know that very small amounts of published writing can be quoted with no problem. As long as we properly cite the source, it’s considered fair use. Columbia University Libraries has a useful checklist to help you think through the important factors involved in fair use: purpose, nature, amount, and effect. Many people worry most about the amount factor—how much of a text is too much to quote? There is no clear-cut rule. Some say 10% of the original. For book-length works, publishers often say permission should be sought for anything more than 200-300 words (and that’s 200-300 words total, so if you quote 150 words in one place and another 100 in another then you should seek permission). You should be extra cautious when quoting song lyrics or poetry. Since these works are often short, quoting even small amounts can constitute enough to require permission.

If you want to reproduce illustrations, charts, or other visuals, you almost always need to get permission. It doesn’t make sense to reproduce 10% of a photograph; you’re almost always going to want to use the whole thing. Reproducing artwork can be particularly complicated; Bielstein’s book, Permissions, a Survival Guide, is a good source on this topic.

Ultimately, the decision of whether to seek permission is up to you and your publisher. Publishing expert Jane Friedman wrote an excellent blog post about fair use and permissions, in which she explains:

The only way your use of copyright is tested is by way of a lawsuit. That is, there is no general policing of copyright. Therefore, how you handle copyrighted content depends on how risk averse you are. If you decide not to seek permission because you plan to use a fair use argument, be prepared with the best-possible case to defend your use of the copyrighted content in the event that you are sued. (Friedman 2020)

At CEL, as a non-profit, we’re risk averse, so we require our authors to secure permissions. Several of our authors have received permission from individual authors and publishers for all types of works: extensive quotes from books, blog posts, and artwork. This blog post has been an overview of a very complicated topic! Please explore the linked resources to get help with your individual needs and situations.

This post is an installment of our series on academic book publishing. If you missed any of the other posts, check them out:


Bielstein, Susan M. 2006. Permissions, a Survival Guide. University of Chicago Press.

Cornell University Library Copyright Information Center. 2021. “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.” Updated March 17, 2021.

Friedman, Jane. 2020. “A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use and Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter.” Jane Friedman (blog). September 17, 2020.

Healey, Mick, Kelly E. Matthews, and Alison Cook-Sather. 2020. Writing about Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Creating and Contributing to Scholarly Conversations across a Range of Genres. Elon, NC: Center for Engaged Learning.

Stanford Libraries. n.d. “Welcome to the Public Domain.” Copyright and Fair Use.

University of Chicago Press. n.d. “Author’s Permission Guidelines.”

Jennie Goforth is the Center for Engaged Learning’s Managing Editor. She works with authors to shepherd their work from proposal through production in the Center’s Open Access Book Series. She also manages production of book websites and supplemental materials for the Stylus Publishing/Center for Engaged Learning Series on Engaged Learning and Teaching.

How to cite this post:

Goforth, Jennie. 2021, May 17. “Academic Book Publishing: Understanding Permissions” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from