Rights Clearances: A Method to the Mind-Numbing Madness

197px-Copyright.svg [Warning: This may very well be my most boring post of all time. But I think it covers some fairly useful material.]

[Edit 6/18: To further bore you to tears, I’ve added some new material re: fees and budgets. In a helpful Twitter exchange, which I’ll post below, my lovely colleague Alexandra Lange reminded me of these critical financial concerns.]

For each of the past five or six years I’ve been fortunate to have a research assistant — a Masters student I have every intention of enlisting to help me collect research resources and prepare material for publication; to serve as a sounding board for my syllabi and lesson plans; to help with maintaining my various websites; etc. When it comes time to delegate, however, I’ve tended to be overly cautious: I’m concerned that all the scanning and note-taking and image-formatting will be too boring and un-educational, so I end up doing all the drudge-work myself — and giving my RAs too little to do. Then I invariably find myself scanning books in the office on a Saturday afternoon — or spending long nights collating permission forms and reformatting image files to send off to my publisher — and thinking to myself: it this really the best use of my time?

So, after years and years of this “fear of delegating non-‘enlightening’ tasks,” I finally decided to ask my RA — a highly motivated, intelligent, organized, and capable young woman — to help me handle image rights clearances for a little book I’m publishing later this year. Nearly everything I’ve ever published has included images — 80 or so in my first book (I obtained permission for over 100), between two and six for most of my articles and chapters — and I’ve always handled all the copyright clearances myself. Selecting the images can be fun, but managing the bureaucracy isn’t exactly the most stimulating of tasks (ok, fine — it sucks).

That said, being introduced to the whole process can, potentially, be educational — and perhaps even interesting — for someone who’s new to the world of publishing, academic or otherwise. Plus, it easily disabuses us of the notion that “information wants to be free” — and reminds us that cultural producers do deserve credit (and remuneration, in some form) for their work.

I aimed to entrust my RA with as much responsibility as possible, so she felt empowered to make decisions and sensed my faith in her abilities. But I also wanted to set up a structure for her work — so she knew how to organize her correspondence and anticipate questions. Coincidentally, as I was preparing a little “primer” for her, two academic friends mentioned to me that they, as doctoral students, were asked to handle rights clearances for their advisors’ books. Both said they were given a list of images and copies of their advisors’ manuscripts — and put to work. That’s it. No further instruction. They were embarrassed to ask their advisors for direction — they assumed that this was a practice they should be familiar with, and they were reluctant to admit their ignorance — so they consulted with fellow students and rooted around for any advice they could piece together.

Sure, finding your own way has pedagogical and “character-building” value. But I see no harm in sharing what I’ve learned, from my own experience in managing rights clearances for my own work for the past decade-and-a-half.

So here’s what I did: First, I requested from my publisher more info about the types of images for which they require rights clearances (e.g., some don’t require permissions for ephemera or maps — but my book makes use of lots of maps-as-art and argues that maps are authored, rhetorical media, so I’m getting clearances for maps, too) and a template of your press’s “rights clearance” letter, which you’ll need to customize with info re: your publication’s tentative title, format, anticipated publication date and press run, etc. And if you have a budget for usage fees — perhaps provided by a grant, through your own research funds, or via an advance from your publisher (ha!!) — you need to figure out what that is, and get a sense of how you want to distribute those inevitably insufficient funds (Because of the contemporary and “bloggy” nature of my current project, I’m aiming to use mostly CreativeCommons-licensed and public domain images — so my primary means of “budgeting” involves eliminating nearly all images that require significant payment).

I sent the press’s permissions guidelines and template rights letter, along with the following note (with a few edits, to correct for ambiguities we discovered after our initial round of correspondence), to my RA:

Hi, Fantastic Research Assistant!

[inquiries about her own work, niceties, smalltalk, smalltalk]…  I’d really appreciate your help with securing image rights clearances for the roughly 45 images I’d like to use in a short book — XX — I’m publishing with X Press this fall=l.

I’ve attached the manuscript. Inserted throughout you’ll find yellow-highlighted lines indicating what images I’d like to use, and where I’d like for them to be placed within the text. I’ve included links to the images online — and, in some cases, links to the articles or blog posts in which I found those images.

We have to get clearance for all copyrighted images, and notify all Creative Commons license-holders (or holders of other forms of more liberal licensing) that we’d like to use their work. I’ve included instructions below. We can talk more when we meet!

Thanks so much for your help! Shannon


So, here’s what I need you to do:

  1. Create a spreadsheet listing all the images in the order in which they’re listed in the manuscript
  2. Create a row listing the “Sources” for each image — i.e., what book, article, blog post, etc. it appeared in — in other words, where we found it (online, in most cases). Include URLs where applicable.
  3. Create a row on the spreadsheet for “Rights Holders + Contact Info.” You’ll need to do some investigation to find out who holds the rights to each image. Sometimes the rights holders will be listed in the image’s caption. Sometimes the photos are by the authors of the article or blog post; you’ll need to ID those folks and find their contact info. Sometimes you’ll have to do some deeper investigation.
  4. Create a row on the spreadsheet called “Permission Granted.” Here, you’ll make a checkmark if/when the rights holders contact you to say that they’ve approved our use of their images.
  5. Create a row on the spreadsheet for “Preferred Citation.” Here’s you’ll note how the rights holder wants to be credited (e.g., “Photo courtesy Mr. X” or “Copyright Ms. X, 2013.”)  They’ll indicate their preferred citation on the clearance form they’ll return to you. More about this later.
  6. [Added 6/18] Create a row on the spreadsheet for “Fees.” We’re asking rights holders to grant us permission to use their material either free of charge or for a “nominal fee,” since this is a non-profit endeavor (see ArtStor’s “Images for Academic Publishing” program). Please note “no fee” if applicable.
    …..However, some organizations, institutions, and individuals (e.g., various archives, libraries, and museums; professional photographers, artists, and designers, etc.) might require (as per guidelines on their websites) or request a fee. Please alert me if a fee is required or requested, and note the amount on the spreadsheet. I might be able to negotiate. Regardless, we’ll need to let the rights holders know that we’ll reassess the budget once we have a final list of all the images we’d like to use in the publication — and if we do ultimately decide that we’d like to use their image(s), and that we can pay the fee, we’ll be in touch at a later date to process payment. (More about money crap below.)
  7. Create a row on the spreadsheet for “Possible Substitute Images.” We can return to this after we’ve made our initial rounds of contacts. You won’t have to fill in this field for each image — only those that we can’t use, for whatever reason. Perhaps we simply can’t pay the fee they’re requesting, or maybe we can’t track down the rights holders. In these cases, I’d be appreciative if you could please do some online image research to find a good substitute image for which the rights holder’s identity is more clear. Try Google Images, Flickr, Instagram, etc. Best of all, you might find an image that’s in the public domain or liberally licensed via CreativeCommons. On the spreadsheet, note the links for these replacement images and relevant contact info for the rights holders. If it’s a public domain image, note the preferred citation, as well as the creator and his/her contact info.
  8. Now, you’ll need to contact each of the rights holders. Send them an email with an introductory text (I’ll paste it below), and attach (1) the Image Permissions letter and (2) a copy of the images we’d like to reproduce. You’ll need to “customize” this letter with the date, addressee, and a description of the image — and send it as a PDF. In some cases, we might be asking to use more than one image from the same rights holder; this is why it’s a good idea to list all the images on a spreadsheet first, so you can see if there’s any duplication — and then you can simply write the individual once with multiple images listed in the same email.
  9. As they respond, note their responses — yes/no, date of response, preferred citation, fees — on the spreadsheet.
  10. Please forward any correspondence that requires my attention — e.g., requests for payment, questions re: how the image will be used in the book.
  11. Please create a folder for each rights holder in which you save: (1) pdfs of all email correspondence with them, (2) a copy of their signed, returned Image Permissions form, and (3) a copy/copies of the high-res image(s).
  12. Follow up with folks who haven’t responded after a week or so. You could even try calling, using my office phone.
  13. If some folks never respond, I’ll try to reach out to them. If they still don’t respond, if they ask for an insane fee, or if they give us a flat-out ‘no,’ I’ll ask for your help in searching for replacement images.


And here’s the text you can use in the email you send to everyone:

Dear X,

I’m writing on behalf of Shannon Mattern, an Associate Professor at The New School in New York. Shannon — whose work you can find on her website, — is publishing a short book with X Press this fall; you’ll find a short description of the project below. She’d like to reproduce in this book some material to which you hold the rights. We originally found this/these images here: [list URLs for online sources]. You can find copies of those images attached.

I’ve attached a letter that describes in greater detail the nature of the project, and the terms of the agreement. Please note that X is an academic press, and that Shannon will likely not profit from the publication; for this reason, we ask that you please consider granting us permission to use your work at no cost or for a nominal fee.

If you do agree to these terms, please sign the attached letter (noting, on the second page, your preferred citation and, if applicable, where this work was first published), and return it to me. Please also send a high-resolution copy of the image. We prefer 4” x 5” 300 dpi tiff files, but we can make do with slightly lower resolution.

Please respond directly to me. If you have any questions for Shannon, please let me know, and I’ll forward your queries to her.

The final selection of images will ultimately be determined by the length of the book, the preferences of the press’s designers, etc. — but we do hope to be able to include your work in the publication. Thank you very much for your time and consideration!

Your Name


[Include one-paragraph synopsis of the projec]


Quite a few rights-holders wrote back wanting to know more about the specific context in which their work will be reproduced — in other words, what arguments will my images be supporting?, or what will you be using my photographs to say? — so I invited my RA to attempt to briefly summarize the main discussion topics in the section of the text in which the copyright-holder’s image(s) would be placed. If she didn’t feel comfortable doing this, I offered to do it.

[6/18] Also, a Twitter exchange with architectural historian/critic Alexandra Lange reminded me of the financial implications of rights clearances. For previous projects, I have on occasion paid upwards of $300 per image — for archival images, or for the work of highly regarded professional photographers. Art and architectural historians and critics in particular face exorbitant fees — in some cases, so exorbitant that their projects ultimately prove to be cost prohibitive. Or, in other cases — as with this art history text book — the project proceeds, but in compromised form, without the images.

Mary Finer, Project Strategist at ArtStor (and a fabulous former student of mine!) chimed in to remind us that ArtStor offers some of its images for use, free of charge, in academic publications.

My RA and I are still in the midst of this process — but once she’s collected all her responses, she’ll share with me (1) her spreadsheet documenting the process; (2) copies of all her correspondence (including, especially, the signed permission forms) with each rights holder; and (3) high-res copies of all the images we’ll reproduce in the article.

And that’s that. God, I just bored myself to sleep.

2 replies on “Rights Clearances: A Method to the Mind-Numbing Madness”

Thank you so much for demystifying this process and for providing templates to help with organization and the email request. I’m bookmarking this for future reference. ~VE

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