Anyone who has every tried it knows clearing permission to use copyrighted material in another publication is a pain. It can take ages to find the original copyright holder in the first place, ages to receive a response from the publisher, you may have to chase several times, you may have to correspond with the author as well, you may be asked to pay a fee, you must get the wording of the acknowledgement just right and you must keep all the paperwork so you can legally prove that you are permitted to use the material which you have so laboriously sought out. Take a breath… And that’s all assuming someone agrees to give you permission at all.
Of course you can try not using someone else’s work in the first place, but often a specific extract, figure or photo is essential to the story or the point you need to get across. Or you could seek out content which is available through a Creative Commons (CC) licence: so long as your plans for the content fit in with the terms of the licence, you may not even need to contact the original copyright holder. I’m personally using more and more CC-licensed images from the photo-sharing site Flickr – where you can search just for CC content – and some publishers are even starting to use CC, for specialist publications. But what if the essential piece of material you need isn’t available in this way?
When author and scientist Jennifer Rohn started the process (which she left until a foolhardy six weeks before publication) of clearing permissions for poetry included in her novel The Honest Look she “soon slammed into a brick a wall”. She ended up resorting to her scientific roots: approaching contacts and authors directly to try and circumvent the bureaucracy. Concerned about how to contact such a big name author as Margaret Atwood, Rohn decided to send an open tweet, addressed to @MargaretAtwood. As her wonderful blog post describes, using twitter as a means to make contact worked, although the formal agreement was conducted by traditional means. Kudos to Rohn for her audacity and ingenuity; kudos to Atwood for her pragmatic response. And kudos to Twitter for removing the often insurmountable barrier between the world and a big name author.