Adding to Your Editorial Tool Kit: Image Research and Permissions

Date: Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Panelists: Kris Ashley, Veronica Oliva and Tim Cox
Forum arranged by Karen Asbelle
Summary notes by Micah Standley

To describe copyright law as complex is an understatement, but navigating these murky waters isn't impossible. The panelists at the March forum in San Francisco presented some best practices for tracking down and negotiating rights to content.

Image Research

Kris Ashley is an established copyeditor who also performs art and image research for book publishers. Veronica Oliva is an experienced permissions editor who currently works on college-level foreign language and trade books. Tim Cox is a technical editor who has experience obtaining permissions for content in computing and engineering from professional journals, individual artists, movie studios, and video game companies.

When asked about her background as an image researcher, Kris said that "you don't need a degree in art history; an enjoyment of research and art, good Internet skills, and patience are all that are required." Most books need images. If you're lucky, the author or the publisher knows what he or she wants, but usually it's not that simple. Kris recommends querying and gathering as many search parameters as possible and then delving in to the numerous resources available. When looking for images, it's best to find at least two or three versions of what you want that are at a (minimum) resolution of 300 dots per inch (DPI). Most images are accompanied by caption and credit files. The caption file contains suggested information to include from the image house. The credit file contains the artist's name (and the photographer, if applicable) that must be included. When it's time to get down to work, Kris suggests knowing the following:

  • What is the projected print run?
  • Will the work be in black and white or color?
  • Will the image appear inside the book or on the cover?
  • If inside the book, what size will it be (full page, half-page, etc.)?
  • In which countries will the work be sold? Kris recommends asking for worldwide distribution rights and all languages, to cover your bases.

If you're a freelancer, Kris also highly recommends negotiating the rights in your client's name, not yours, to protect yourself from any legal trouble down the line.


Veronica Oliva and Tim Cox came to permissions editing in unique ways. Veronica began her career as a copyeditor and became friends with the head of the permissions department at the company she was working for. "I am a nosy person. I want to know everything." So, getting to the bottom of securing rights seemed like a fit with her natural curiosity and enjoyment of working with people. Tim's work in publishing computer graphics textbooks required that he learn the ins and outs of acquiring permissions because most of the computer graphics content comes from the entertainment industry—a proverbial can of worms.

Veronica summarized the task of the permissions editor in a very simple statement: "We clear rights." The basic tenet of copyright law is that a person has the right to reproduce, distribute, perform, and display their work. As such, it is important to properly obtain the right to reproduce an intellectual-property owner's work. For Veronica, her job is to "keep my clients out of trouble." She offered some resources for those considering this role.

Copyright law is complex. As Tim stated, "Copyright law is not one thing, but a bunch of elements grouped together. Lawyers refer to it as a 'bundle of sticks.'" Just a few of these elements are reproduction rights, translation rights, publication rights (not the same as reproduction rights), fair use issues, and the ever-problematic electronic rights.

Both Tim and Veronica presented a few guiding principles for dealing with permissions rights:

  • Know what you want and be very specific. It's vital that you are absolutely clear about the scope and content of the publication, where it's being distributed, and the languages it's being published in. You must also consider the future of the publication or project and anticipate any potential problems.
  • Have flexible goals. Always have a backup plan; don't base your entire project on a single image or piece of content.
  • Once your contract to work on the project is signed, start working on clearing rights immediately. It's not uncommon for the process to take several months.
  • Know who or where you are requesting material from and try to find a friend on the inside. Veronica's foremost question in this arena was, "Is the rights holder litigious?"

Tim told the story of clearing rights to some images from Sony for a book on gaming. A higher-up feared some potential revenue losses from releasing these images until Tim asked a colleague who worked at Sony to convince the person that granting these rights would likely increase revenue.

  • Know your client's fair-use guidelines. Most publishers have fair-use guidelines derived from case law (or, as Veronica said, "Who's been sued?") and their own experiences with fair-use issues. Some examples include: don't use more that 200 words of text; don't use more than one line of a poem; and don't use song lyrics.
  • Finally, stay organized! Veronica recommends keeping a log of the permissions you have cleared. When there will be multiple editions of a publication, being organized is especially helpful for avoiding duplicate work for you or your successor.


Micah Standley is the associate editor of artistic publications for San Francisco Opera. He has written and edited for projects ranging from music and opera to veterinary medicine and quilting. He is also a freelance musician.



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