Can I Quote Someone Else’s Work In My Book Without Permission?

Authors often ask me whether they can use other people’s copyrighted work within their own books – and whether they need to ask permission to include it.

I’d like to give some clarity on ‘permission’ and copyright in this blog. ‘Permission’ means seeking permission to use someone else’s copyrighted work in your own. In other words, you contact the copyright owner of the writing and ask permission to use the work. If the work is self-published, the copyright owner is the author. If the work is published by a publishing house, newspaper or magazine, then they will own the copyright rather than the writer.

Most publishers have a ‘permissions department’ you can approach. They also have formal paperwork for you to sign that will detail the territories in which you have permission to use the copyrighted work. This will contain clauses detailing the conditions and any exceptions to the permission.

Sometimes, this permission is given for free as you are promoting and publicising the other work. Often though, a fee is charged, which can range anywhere from a few dollars upwards to thousands of dollars.

When Permission Is NOT Needed:

  • Work in the public domain. It can sometimes be hard to determine whether a work is in the public domain. But as a rule of thumb, any work published before 1923 is considered to be in the public domain. There are also some works published after 1923 that are also in the public domain. (More information below).
  • When mentioning the title or author. If you are just mentioning the title of a work, you do not need permission. This is just like stating a fact.
  • ‘Fair Use’ guidelines. If you only want to quote a few lines from a book, you are probably within fair use guidelines. You therefore won’t need permission. See below for more information).
  • Creative Commons. If a work is licensed under Creative Commons, no permission is required. This is usually prominently stated on the work itself, as an alternative to the copyright symbol. Many books, sites and blogs are licensed under Creative Commons.

It is important to remember that crediting the source of a work does NOT take away your obligation to seek permission. In fact, it is expected you should acknowledge your source regardless of fair use.

Fair Use in a Nutshell
There are four criteria for Fair Use. These criteria are a little vague and therefore open to interpretation. Ultimately, it is up to the courts to make a final decision over what constitutes ‘fair use’ when there is a disagreement.

The four criteria are:

  • The purpose and character of the use. Is the purpose of your work educational or for charity; or is it a commercial venture? If the main purpose of your work is to make money, this makes your case less sympathetic if you’re borrowing a lot of someone else’s copyrighted work.
  • The nature of the copyrighted work. Creative or imaginative works get the strongest protection. It is impossible to copyright a fact.
  • The amount of the portion used compared to the entire quoted work. There is no percentage or word count suggested as a guideline by the courts. This is because some portions of a work my be considered to be the most valuable part/s.
  • The effect on the potential market for or value of the quoted work. If using the original work damages the chances of people buying the original work, then you are violating fair use.

Copyright on websites, blogs, etc

The same rules technically apply to copyrighted work online, but attitudes tend to be more relaxed. When bloggers use excerpts of copyrighted work (both from offline and online sources), it’s more likely to be considered as “sharing” or “publicity” rather than as a violation of copyright. So you are bending the rules, but owners of the copyrighted work are less likely to pursue legal action.

Song Titles, TV Titles and Movie Titles
You do not need permission to include any kind of title in your work. It is ok to use: song titles, TV show titles, and movie titles without permission. You don’t need permission to include the names of people, events, and places in your work.

Song Lyrics and Poems

Because songs and poetry can be so short, it is best not to even include one line without asking for permission. This applies even if you think this could be considered Fair Use. It is ok to use the titles of songs or poems, and the names of bands or artists.

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