Obtaining Image Permissions For Your Book: An Author’s Perspective

Posted October 12, 2021

Since we first published this guest post by Authors Alliance member Lois Farfel Stark in August 2018, Authors Alliance has received numerous questions from authors on clearing third-party permissions—an understandably daunting part of the publishing process. Inspired in part by this post’s perennial popularity, we are pleased to announce the upcoming release of a brand new guide on the topic of clearing third-party permissions. Stay tuned for the guide later this month, and if you haven’t already, consider joining Authors Alliance to receive updates about these and other new resources. 


Front cover of The Telling ImageOver ten years ago—when I began writing my new book, The Telling Image: Shapes of Changing Times—I knew I wanted to create a book that focused on images. The central topic of the book is how humans make sense of the world by finding a shape, an image, to hold everything together.

The journey from that moment to now has been one of discovery mixed with learning. In order to gather the over 200+ images into the book, I had to teach myself about copyright law—a task that is not easy, even on paper. Your book’s journey may be different, and you may even find yourself needing to consult with a lawyer, depending on the situation.

Copyrights for image use are complex, and copyright duration can be extremely long. The U.S. Copyright Act defines an image as a “work of visual art” which includes painting, drawing, print, sculpture, and photographic images. Other copyrightable pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works noted in the Act include “. . . two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic, and applied art, photographs, prints and art reproductions, maps, globes, charts, diagrams, models, and technical drawings, including architectural plans.”

Eventually, I included a variety of images in my book, from early blueprints of corporate boardrooms to charts and diagrams used by physicists. Many uses of images require permission from the copyright holder, unless the use falls under an exception to copyright law like fair use or when the work is in the public domain. Uses within the copyright owner’s exclusive rights include reproducing the image in print or online, creating derivative works (new works based on the original), distributing copies of the image (i.e., by publication), or displaying the image in public. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Not so much. Each image in this book ended up having its own acquisition story.

For example, early on I knew I wanted to include a photograph of the indigenous Yamomami tribe from the Amazon. One of the first images I found was shot by an anthropologist. When I tried to contact him, I learned he had died. Luckily, his son—also an anthropologist in the Amazon—held the rights to his father’s estate. I sent him an email asking for permission to use the image in my book, which he granted.

That sounds like the end of the story, but in fact it was just the beginning. The son, who now held the rights to his father’s image, explained that his father had never uploaded the negatives. The son would have to leaf through a lifetime of his father’s work to find the correct image, which would take some time. In addition, the negatives were kept safe from the heat in an old refrigerator that needed repair. It was difficult to get parts to the jungle. The son was also waiting for a repair part for his computer, so he could print and relay the image to me. When the process was completed, I would have to send payment to his bank in Switzerland because there was no way to get money to the Amazon.

In the end, I didn’t end up using this image but instead one from Survival International, a nonprofit service that requested a donation in exchange for use of the image. This experience taught me a lot about the copyright laws and the lengths I was willing to go to for the right photograph.

Contacting Copyright Holders

There are a few simple steps one can take to find out who holds the copyright to an image:

  1. If the image is printed in a book, check the image index to find the copyright holder. Older books will often reference a different book entirely, which can lead to a rabbit hole—so be ready for a journey.
  2. If the image is online, you can contact the person who uploaded the image to the website. There are many fantastic public domain images available, but it’s important to still double-check the rights. (In fact, some publishers may require that you get written consent from the copyright holder before including the image in your book.) Wikimedia Commons often lists who uploaded the image, but you’ll have to go through Wikimedia’s messaging process to contact that person. Other sites, like Flickr, are user-generated and have similar processes for contacting image-holders.
  3. If the image is a piece of art, ArtRes.com is a great resource for finding out who might hold the original rights. Museums often contract their image permissions out to other companies like ArtRes. Recently, museums have started creating public domain image databases, like the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rijksmuseum, and the Getty.
  4. Libraries are your new best friend. Sometimes you can find out, by a simple Google search, who took a photograph and, if that person is deceased, who holds the archive to their work. Don’t be afraid to send an email to a library that holds materials from a photographer you’re interested in finding out more about. Librarians will often be able to track down the original copyright holder.
  5. When you do send an email to an artist, library, or museum, be sure to be clear and exact about what image you’re looking for, any info you have on it, and what rights you’re asking for.

The story of the Yamomami image illustrates how images often have a life of their own. Sometimes the rights are not held by photographers but instead by the magazines that the image first appeared in. One of the images I used in The Telling Image ended up being contracted by Nature, a science journal. Some images I used came from architects and still others from hotel promotional images. And, of course, there are plenty of public domain images out there that don’t cost anything at all—if you can verify that they truly are in the public domain!

There’s no one way to do this. Government images, such as those that come from organizations like NASA, are usually public domain images. However, in some cases NASA uses images on its website that are copyrighted by other individuals or entities—for those, you have to contact the copyright holder to garner permission. All of this required me to read NASA’s image use permissions very closely to make sure I was asking the right people for use.

Wikimedia Commons seems like a great source for finding images licensed for public use—free open-source images with no copyright liability (so long as you follow the terms of the license). But being a public source, images are uploaded by public users who may not understand copyright laws. For example, an image I wanted to use was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons but turned out to be from a library collection that was not licensed for public use. Therefore, I had to contact the library to ask permission to use the image. Or, in some cases, I contacted the person who uploaded the image and had them verify that they were actually the copyright holder and that they indeed wanted the work in the public domain.

Sample Request Email

In the end, I drew up a simple cover letter for all image requests:

Dear [Name of Photographer],

I am writing to ask permission to use your image [Image Title] found in [Book or Website Title]; see link below.

I am interested in using the image in an upcoming book, The Telling Image. The image permission would include use in this forthcoming nonfiction book published by the Greenleaf Book Group, including use in the future eBook, related websites, electronic versions, and presentations throughout the world.

Thank you,
Lois Stark

There are some key elements to this simple language. One, I verified that I wanted world rights—the right to use the image if the book was republished in another country, not just the U.S. I also wanted to be clear that I often use images on my website, for promotion, and in presentations that I give.

Once I found the copyright holder, the next step was to detail the parameters of the permissions. The best way to do this is through a contract. There are many sample contracts online, but it’s best to tweak them to be clear about what rights you’re requesting. List what you’re interested in doing with the image. List any payment you’re willing to make and how that payment will occur. Many artists and photographers will provide their own contracts, but it’s best to read them carefully and be aware of the language.

Things you might address in a contract include:

  • The title of your book/publication
  • The name and location of your publisher or editor
  • Estimated date of publication
  • Territorial distribution (i.e. U.S., worldwide)
  • The language of the publication
  • The size of the print run
  • Whether the image will be printed in color or black and white
  • Whether the image will be an interior or cover shot and what the size of that image will be (1/4 page, 1/2 page, etc.)
  • Whether the publication will be used in an eBook or other websites
  • Any other uses you are requesting (e.g., use in promotional material).

In the case of this book, I ended up working with a whole team of editors to track down all the necessary rights to images. I worked with two image editors, in addition to the publisher’s permission department, and I am grateful to everyone who had a hand in the creation of the book. Copyrights for images can be confusing and daunting, but it’s worth the effort to support the work of artists and photographers who make an important contribution to our world.


Authors Alliance member Lois Farfel Stark is an Emmy Award-winning producer, documentary filmmaker, and author of The Telling Image: Shapes of Changing Times. During her distinguished career, she produced and wrote over forty documentaries on architecture, medical research, wilderness protection, artists, and social issues. She is a dedicated supporter of civic, arts, and philanthropic organizations. More information about Lois Stark is available on her website.