It all depends

Last week’s Spotlight article on plagiarism sparked a ton of questions from you. I asked ANR Communications editor Rebecca McKee to answer a question that came from Michigan State University Extension educator Rebecca Finneran.

Q: If you have permission to use a photo then you want to use it again (with citation) do you have to get permission a second time?

A: The short answer to your question – and to many copyright-related questions – is “it depends.”

The long answer is that it depends on what rights you asked for and what rights the photographer or copyright holder granted you the first time you asked for permission to use the photo. Different photographers will grant different levels of permission, and may or may not charge a fee for doing so.

For example, if a photographer gives you what’s called “one-time use” permission to use a photo, then you have permission to use it just once, in whatever form (such as in a book, article, video, poster or brochure) you specified in your original permission request. If you want to use that photo a second time, even if it’s for something related to the first request, such as on a bookmark promoting the book you printed the photo in, you’ll have to ask the photographer for permission again.

If the photographer gave you permission to use the photo as often as you’d like, in whatever form you’d like, for as long as you’d like, then you won’t have to ask for permission to use that photo again, whether or not the later use is related to the original request.

Some tips for requesting permission and using photos from third parties follow:

  • Address your request for permission to the copyright holder or the copyright holder’s designee. Sometimes a photographer assigns a photo’s copyright to his or her business or sells it to a third-party, such as a stock photo house. Sometimes photographers are assigned to take photos as part of their jobs, which means their employers (such as Michigan State University in the case of MSU Extension employees) are the copyright holders. (Note: Beware online photos. Sometimes photos that appear on a web page or social media site have “gone viral” and been shared hundreds or thousands of times. Just because you see a photo on a given page doesn’t mean the owner of that page holds the copyright on the photo, has the right to grant you permission to use it or is even using it with permission himself or herself.)
  • Ask for exactly the type of permission you want: Print or online? One-time or unlimited use? As-is, edited or adapted?
  • Get permission in writing – email will do – because verbal instructions won’t hold up in court.
  • Keep the permission letter on file permanently.
  • Follow the instructions for whom to name in the photo credit as closely as you can.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to work through the permissions process. If the photographer is someone in the same office, permission may come nearly instantly. If you’re buying a photo from an online stock photo company, as soon as you’ve entered your credit card information, the photo will be yours to download. But if you’re working with an individual or a big publisher, it could takes days or weeks for the paperwork to wind its way through their system.

The Copyright Permissions Center of the MSU Library helps “MSU affiliated persons” (including MSU Extension employees) with copyright permission requests. Visit the center online at for more information. Cecilia Malilwe of the MSU Copyright Permissions Center helped with this answer.

You can learn more about copyright and permissions and ask Amy Blair, MSU copyright librarian, specific questions in her session during the next SERV day (June 17).

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