How And When To Get Permission To Use Quotes In Your Writing

by | Jan 31, 2014 | Other Helpful Information, The Writing Life | 66 comments

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How And When To Get Permission To Use Quotes In Your Writing

It’s perfectly okay to quote an excerpt of another author’s work in your writing, but it’s not always okay to do so without permission. If you don’t want to be sued for copyright infringement, it’s important to know when you need permission and when you don’t. And that’s not always obvious. Even the U.S. Copyright Office acknowledges how difficult it can be to determine when you need permission to quote:

The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission.

When Do You Need To Get Permission To Use Quotes? 

Copyright is a form of protection for creative and original works, and U.S. copyright is automatic the moment that work is formed into a “tangible form of expression” such as written on disk or paper, or recorded.

This work—whether it’s a song, sketch, or short story—is intellectual property, protected by copyright as long as it can be viewed (or communicated) in a fixed form. Reproducing copyrighted work without permission is copyright infringement.

So, when do you need permission to quote song lyrics or poems or excerpts from novels in your writing? The answer is: If quoting without permission results in copyright infringement, then you need to get permission.

If you want to quote a small piece of someone else’s material in your work—whether it’s song lyrics, poems, excerpts from novels or interviews, photographs, or material from the Internet—you must credit the source, even if you plan to use only one or two lines of a song or poem.

But keep in mind that acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material is not a substitute for acquiring permission from the copyright owner.

Because quoting can be so tricky, some writers try to quote only from publications that fall under the fair use category. Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright’s website contains a list of the purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair use. This includes using quoted material for the use of criticism, commentary, teaching, parody, summary, and research—to name a few.

If you’re writing a book and you want to include a quote for purposes of commentary or parody, you’re probably within your rights to do so, provided that you’re just excerpting a short quote and not including, say, an entire short story or poem. But as always, do credit the source.

Another exception is if the material falls under public domain, like ideas, titles of books, slogans, and names—things that cannot be copyrighted. Public domain material includes work created before January 1, 1923, works for which the copyright has expired—and most federal and state government documents. However, to make things more complicated, even if a work is in the public domain in the United States, it may still be protected overseas, where the rules concerning copyright duration differ.

And, finally, if a work is licensed under Creative Commons, you may not need permission to quote from it. Creative Commons licenses “help creators retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work, at least non-commercially.” (Check out the Creative Commons website for further clarification of their rules and exceptions.)

The U.S. Copyright Office advises: “The safest course is to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. When it is impracticable to obtain permission, you should consider avoiding the use of copyrighted material unless you are confident that the doctrine of fair use would apply to the situation. The Copyright Office can neither determine whether a particular use may be considered fair nor advise on possible copyright violations.”

If you do successfully track down the copyright owner, be prepared to pay for the privilege of using their work. Sometimes you’ll receive permission for free (as your work may be seen as promotion), but fees can range from a few bucks to thousands of dollars.

Finally, don’t assume you can obtain permission to quote “later,” as in after your book is published. You may find yourself having to destroy all copies, not to mention facing legal fees and copyright damages.

A Practical Approach To Quotes And Permissions

Is it now crystal clear to you when you need permission to quote in your own writing? Probably not. The issue of copyright infringement is complex and fraught with gray areas, so before you quote song lyrics, poems, excerpts of novels, or other material in your writing, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

As a general guideline, if you’re going to be quoting a lot of text, get permission. And if you’re just quoting a single line but aren’t certain it’s okay to do it, get permission then too. You might think you don’t need permission for short quotes from properly cited sources. But when in doubt, play it safe.

At Writer’s Relief, we are writers’ advocates—but we don’t claim to offer legal advice. If you want to quote someone else’s material in your own work, we urge you to research copyright law carefully or, even better, consult an intellectual property attorney.Submit to Review Board

Photo by jmawork

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: Have you ever gone through the process of finding permission to quote in your own work? How did it go?

66 Comments

  1. Wendy

    Two things worry me about getting permission.
    1) When? As you say, one could be in the position of having to buy back and destroy published copies, but one could also be in the position of spending thousands of dollars for permissions for a book that no publisher will touch.

    2) How? Especially for things that you know SOMEBODY said, but you can’t remember who, or even if you do, can’t find a line of communication to ask. I mean, who owns the copyright of a dead author that didn’t bother to assign rights in a will, or have kids? Who owns a no-byline article printed in a defunct newspaper? Or, my favorite, those one- or two-line quips that get pulled out of their original bodies of work and collected into books of quotations?

    Reply
  2. Angela

    Great info to know since it can be rather murky.

    Reply
  3. Bert

    I got permission to use another bloggers post as a guest post, once. I just emailed him, told him how I was going to use it, and asked if I could drop the whole post, properly credited, into my blog as a guest post.

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  24. Michael E C Gery

    I plan to self-publish a novel. As I proceeded to acquire permissions to use some passages from other writers who are loved and emulated by characters in the story, the holders of the rights were difficult or impossible to deal with and sought exorbitant fees. Pointing out how my use (among a likely very limited readership) would praise and promote the work did not help. I am going to delete the passages and the attribution and just make up fictitious writers and prose or poetry

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  26. Laura

    I just self-published a kids book & I want to giveaway FREE bookmarks at library events. The bookmark art would include a one sentence famous (interview) quote on themes: reading, education, creativity. I include the source of the quote, note some people still living. Do you think there would be a problem?

    Reply
    • Writer's Relief Staff

      Hi Laura,

      Thank you for your question. Be sure to include the name of the person who said the quote and provide enough information for people to be able to find the original quote.

      Reply
  27. Sophie

    Hello. Thank you so much for your site!
    I have almost finished writing a parenting book which examines many different aspects of being a parent of under-five’s (hopefully in a fairly fresh and different format!); from educating kids to humorous experiences to discipline strategies, maternal struggles, health, food, social issues and more. Some of my more serious chapters include quite a few varied quotes to give weight to my “argument” or the issues I encourage parents to consider. Eg, I have a chapter on TV and media, with my main point being that there are many risks we need to consider and protect our children against these days. While I present my case in 7 categories in my own words, I use quotes ranging from 24 to 114 words in length, from about 8 different authors/speakers to expand on my points. Some quotes are from the same book/author but broken into different sections (and taken from different chapters), so I reference that author a number of times. Some quotes are taken from TEDTalks or an article I found online as well. These authors are non-fiction, often physicians or researchers. My style is somewhat journalistic.

    So my questions are:
    1. Does my non-fiction style help with the fair use argument? (It is not a research paper and if I managed to publish it would be a commercial venture, not helping my case obviously)
    2. Is it equally dangerous to quote from TEDTalks etc?
    3. If I am using varied quotes (rarely beyond 100+ words) from different sources to strengthen my argument, does that help my case as I’m not basing the chapter on another writer’s work, but on my own theme (such as “TV: Friend or Foe?”), and using numerous quotes to strengthen that argument?
    4. Finally, is it safe to quote from organisations such as the American Academy of Paediatrics (e.g, their statement on recommended screen times for babies, 2-year-olds, 5-year-olds etc)?

    I am realizing I will need to seek professional advice and/or remove the quotes (which would reduce the impact and interest of my chapters, I feel). However I would greatly appreciate any thoughts you could give me on my situation and questions if possible!!

    Thank you very much in advance!
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    Reply
    • Writer's Relief Staff

      Hi Sophie,

      Since we are not lawyers, we cannot offer any legal advice. We would recommend contacting a lawyer with experience in the publishing industry.

      Reply
  28. carlea

    I’m still confused. I am a freelance writer and I am writing an article for a trade magazine. I used a public quote from a Congressman that was published on the Internet on a number of websites. Is it o.k. to use it, if not, how do you get permission or site all the many websites that the quote is published? Do I get permission directly from the Congressman?

    Reply
    • Writer's Relief Staff

      Hi, Carlea–
      Great question? The trade magazine for which you are writing the article should have policies and guidelines about this. We recommend you check with them for how they would like you to handle this.

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  30. Marilyn

    I want to use well-known and often repeated quotes usually from famous people at the beginning of the Chapters of my book but the editor is asking if I have permission and wants me to eliminate them. Is there a place I can verify it is okay to use certain quotes?

    Reply
    • Writer's Relief Staff

      Hi Marilyn,

      You will have to research each quote to find out if the work is in the public domain. And if it isn’t, you will have to contact the copyright holders for permission. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  31. Ellison

    I have summarized an episode of a 1970s TV show in a non-fiction book set for publication. Does a writer typically need permission for a summary of this nature when nothing is quoted directly from the episode?

    Reply
    • Writer's Relief Staff

      Hi Ellison,

      We are not lawyers, so we cannot offer legal advice. We would recommend speaking with an attorney who specializes in copyright.

      Reply
  32. Jessie

    Let’s say I were to scramble all of the keywords of a quote into a puzzle, forcing the reader to play a keyword game with google in order to make sense of it? If linking to a quote is legal, would something like jumbling the quote incomprehensibly or putting words into a word search qualify as linking?

    The guy I want to quote has passed away, but won’t be public domain for another decade. As websites evolve and expand over time, I’d rather not use actual internet links for fear of them moving or going dead and making a mess of my own work later on. Can I be sued for such a non-quotational batch of meaningful keywords?

    Reply
    • Writer's Relief Staff

      Hi Jessie,

      We are not lawyers, so we cannot offer legal advice. We would recommend speaking with an attorney who specializes in copyright.

      Reply
  33. Ramesh Dorairaj

    Hi
    What if I want to summarise research papers as reference for my soon to be published book (for profit)? Will citations alone do, or should I get permission…. I am not using quotes

    Reply
    • Writer's Relief Staff

      Hi Ramesh,

      We’re not lawyers, so we cannot offer specific legal advice. We would recommend consulting a lawyer with experience in the publishing industry.

      Reply
  34. Nicole

    Do you have to have permission to use a three word quote said by someone (Estee Lauder)? For use to cosmetic/false lash packaging

    Reply
    • Writer's Relief Staff

      Hi Nicole,

      We are not lawyers, so we cannot offer legal advice. We would recommend speaking with an attorney who specializes in copyright law.

      Reply
  35. Niki

    Hello, My question is: What if you are creating a writing prompt book/motivational book with one page hosting a quotes and the complimenting page across from it stating something simple such as “Thoughts of the day”. A journal of sorts.

    What would be the regulations for this if I were to use quotes from Japanese Animation characters (anime) and cite the show, episodes, and character as well as the original author?

    Reply
  36. Ned Balzer

    I have written a novel which includes some song lyrics, a couple of epigraphs and one instance in which I paraphrase a passage from a non-fiction work and am planning to footnote the passage, even though I don’t quote it directly in the text. I’ve always known I need to try to get permission, and if I were planning to self-publish it would seem clear that it’s my own responsibility to seek permission. But I am hoping to get this novel published commercially. So my question is about common practice: if I do succeed in getting it published, does a publisher usually take on the task of getting permission or does the author do it even in that case? Thank you.

    By the way, awesome site!!!

    Reply
  37. Jane

    Hi,

    I authored my own quotes and in fact, i made an instagram account for it. Here comes my friend who recently launched his website pushed me to make it a quote book.Can you give me tips and advises to make and realize our project?

    Reply
    • Writer's Relief Staff

      Hi Jane,

      The most likely course of publication will be self-publishing, as there isn’t really a market for quotes by unknown individuals. But the first step is to create the manuscript before anything else can happen!

      Reply
  38. Newton

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    Reply
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  40. Tworzenie Stron Bydgoszcz

    I found that some of my articles about web design had been quoted/copied on other websites and nobody asked me for permission. What can I do about it, how to convince the website administrators to give me credits?

    Reply
    • Writer's Relief Staff

      We are not lawyers, and therefore aren’t authorized to offer legal advice. We would recommend speaking with a lawyer who specializes in copyright law.

      Reply
  41. WIlliam

    I’m interested in writing a book about relationships and I’ve had many conversations with people via text and/or emails that would be great material. Do I need to get their written permission to use part of those conversations or to quote from them in my book? There have been a few people that agreed to interviews knowing about the book idea, and a few that decided against me using their stories. If it’s not allowed, then is there a way around it, such as using a fictitious name for them or maybe paraphrasing the conversation in my own words? Thank you for your time.

    Reply
    • Writer's Relief Staff

      Hi William,

      We’re not lawyers, so we can’t give legal advice. We’d recommend consulting a lawyer with experience in publishing.

      Reply
  42. marcus greenwood

    do you neee permission to quote newspaper articles??

    Im writing a book about the civil rights movement do i need permisson to take quotes from articles written in the newspaper in the 1960’s

    Reply
  43. Margaret Johnson

    My question is: May I mention a book title and chapter and the positive effect it had on my life and therefore want to write about it in my own book? If anything I hope it will prompt my readers to go out and purchase their book. I want to mention what the chapter is about.

    Reply
    • Blog Editor

      Hi Margaret,

      We are not lawyers, and therefore cannot give legal advice. We recommend you contact a lawyer with experience in publishing if you have any questions.

      Reply
  44. Carlos Perez

    If my book is short and to the point and my reference to others such as expert authors, expert videos, and expert websites include extremely short quotes if any, but mostly recommendations to certain books/authors, websites, and links to videos online, do I need permission from them?

    Reply
    • Blog Editor

      Hi Carlos,

      We are not lawyers and cannot offer legal advice. We recommend you check with a lawyer who is familiar with the publishing industry.

      Reply
  45. Bill Milkowski

    What about excerpting text from a defunct newspaper? I’m writing a biography and wanted to quote from a 1968 newspaper account of a crime that my subject was involved in…only, the newspaper ceased publishing in 1972 and I can’t find any way to get permission.

    Reply
  46. V Harmon

    i’m thinking about creating a public Instagram account for the purpose of sharing daily motivational quotes with others. My thought process is to post a spiritual quote each day (sometimes from well-known people) that I admire and that have spiritually touched my life one way or another and perhaps may help others as well. I would post the quote and include a bible scripture, list author name (if I know it so they get credit; otherwise, I would write “unknown”) supporting the quote. Do you know if this would be covered under the fair use category or would I need to seek permission? I plan to use motivational quotes posted directly from author’s social media platforms which are public. Here’s how I foresee posting it:

    [Quote]- [Author Name or simply write Unknown if I don’t remember who wrote it when I retrieved it]
    [Scripture]

    Reply
    • Blog Editor

      Since you will be crediting the author of the quote, that should be fine.

      Reply

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