I did a blog post a while back about using poetry and music in your work. In that blog a lot of people had questions about how you go about getting permission and whether or not you need an agent to do so and whether or not it’s an agent’s job to obtain permissions for you. I debated answering these questions in the comments, but then realized that it would probably benefit more of you if I wrote an entire post.
Getting permission to use the copyrighted material of others isn’t simply asking them to sign a letter, it means paying them to sign a letter for the rights in certain territories. In other words, you have to get permission to be able to reprint the work not just in the United States, but throughout the world on the chance your book sells to other countries. And, depending on the work, the author, the music, the amount you’re using, and the type of permissions you need, it can get very costly. Which is why I wouldn’t worry about obtaining permissions until you have sold the book to a publisher.
By waiting not only until the book has sold, but until you can talk to your editor, you’ll know exactly what kind of permissions your publisher requires, you can get a permission form from the publisher, and you’ll know which material is going to stay in the book and which material your editor might suggest you edit out. Because the last thing you want to do is spend a lot of money getting permissions for a book that might never sell or for material in the book that your editor thinks needs to be cut out.
As for the agent’s role: Unfortunately, an agent is not responsible for obtaining the permissions for you, just as an agent is not responsible for writing your book or getting artwork for your book (if you choose to have artwork). Since it’s part of the material you’re supplying the publisher, it’s your responsibility. Sure, an agent can help and guide you through the process, but it’s unlikely she’ll be making the calls to publishers for you.
***Let me also add a quick note. The cost of any permission is the responsibility of the author. While the publisher will tell you what’s needed, they won’t base your advance on the potential cost of permissions and they won’t pay for them for you.